Saturday, May 22, 2010

Review: The Silver Hearted by David McConnell

The Silver Hearted
David McConnell

Published by Alyson

Reviewed by Richard Canning

First, an admission: I know and like David McConnell, and his previous writings. I’m hoping you won’t feel that discounts this review. McConnell’s first novel, The Firebrat (2003), was the one-that-got-away; a masterpiece, published by a tiny American press that shortly afterwards was closed down. McConnell has since had work published variously elsewhere, including two inventive short stories in my own collections Between Men and Between Men 2. In the first, he told a story of condensed genius about playground regard, affection and longing between two pubescent boys. Typically esoteric too, for my essay collection 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read, McConnell chose the world’s oldest “novel”, Gilgamesh: not exactly an easy sell, and not self-evidently “gay”. He made it work. Fluent in French, he reveres obvious lodestars like Jean Genet and Marcel Proust. But among McConnell’s favourite books too is Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore (originally Le ravage des syrtes), a novel which won its author France’s illustrious Prix Goncourt in 1951 (though Gracq, a self-effacing geography schoolteacher, who died only recently, refused the honour).

Gracq – a cult author in Anglophone circles – is one helpful way to approach McConnell’s dense yet limpid prose in The Silver Hearted. The Opposing Shore, though quite different in many respects, is set along coastlines and features boats and shipping in a historically indeterminate place and time. It has been described as ‘a novel of waiting’: Gracq dares to let nothing happen, but makes it happen with great sensual and symbolic richness. Thus he approaches the texture of our everyday lives more closely than in the plotted literary novel.

McConnell too seems to conduct a dare, allowing his short yet vividly impressionistic novel to meander, advance, retreat and reverse. Expectation is all. At times its plot even threatens to implode. Our protagonist and narrator needs to move a stack of coin around and out of a port city undergoing a revolution. To do so, he can call on few to assist. One ready recourse, however, is a young, somewhat worldly sailor, Topher, whom he not only learns to trust, but comes to be infatuated by. The boy, however, interprets the travails found in the novel as a personal learning curve, and presses the narrator to acknowledge the profound moral implications of what they have done.

To describe The Silver Hearted in terms of story, however, is to do it a disservice. Because of its seafaring setting, it is easy to see why American critics made the comparison with Joseph Conrad. But, though Conrad – like Melville and so many other storytellers using the high seas – had something to say about male-male intimacies onboard (see Conrad’s story ‘The Secret Sharer’, described as ‘a simple tale’ by its protagonist, and with resonances for the reader of The Silver Hearted), he was hardly a writer who embraced the vicissitudes of human desire. In this sense, McConnell proves nothing like the more immediate candidates for inspiration; he is, instead, very much our contemporary, and his narrator emotes, thinks, argues with himself… but above all, he desires. In a sense, he is introduced in a state of desire, and the state never leaves him. The novel ends impressionistically, with him registering on a galleon ship ‘the wonderful expressions of concentration on the handsome faces of the men.’ The title of the novel itself pays a sort of tribute to the dominance of this state of longing.

It is truly a novel of atmosphere, and, in conveying atmosphere, McConnell proves a supreme stylist. Take, for example, the deliberate, sustained imprecision with which his narrator records what he perceives of the ethnic minority of “Mandarins”:

It was tricky not to fall into a corrupt “noble savages” way of thinking about these people. Their terracotta faces rarely betrayed anything but stoicism, dignity or laughter, though their uniformly dark eyes were always full of amusement, something confusingly cruel and humane at the same time. Whether they were Parsi or Malay or both, at origin, no one knew. Whatever they were, they weren’t Chinese, certainly not Chinese officials – the term “Mandarin” had been used for convenience by the first Westerners in the country and only described their control over trade and the elaborate formality of their culture. They had no name for themselves at all, not even “the people” like the Inuit. Their population wasn’t large. They were outnumbered many times over by the Karak Indians, who had almost no hand in the country’s affairs.

The principle here is one of ongoing concessions, economically revealed. McConnell’s narrator concedes one thing after another, about the many things that cannot be known, inferred or said about this people. Their essence recedes further inside, as he unpacks one Russian doll after another of presumption, inference and conjecture.

Though peopled with a series of significant characters, The Silver Hearted allows them to come front-of-stage, and then to retreat. Each remains blurry, compared to the figure of Topher, whom the narrator records repeatedly, but if it is also obsessively, he is not about to reveal this. Indeed, his obsession is all the more realized for not idealizing its subject. Our desires, indeed, rarely idealize the object of our desire; rather, we oscillate absurdly between judgment and indulgence, between infatuation and contempt. This contrariness McConnell captures with perfect subtlety, as here:

He pretended not to hear, then, like a child, folded his arms on the table and laid his head on them. His fragmenting blue eyes were alert but dissociated from anything in the shadowy room. He was clearly exhausted. In a few days he’d become deeply tanned, which made the down on his jaw stand out like frost. His savaged fingertips rhythmically made dimples in his upper arms. Even slack, the muscles were too massive for his age.

Typically sensual, without being overt, this set of observations indicates how, in McConnell’s fiction, an erotic charge accompanies the everyday. Indeed, it may need the excuse of the everyday in order to thrive.

David McConnell

Another winning moment revels in the narrator’s self-consciousness. Perhaps we have not been given such a self-aware, apparently honest figure in fiction since Ford Madox Ford’s Good Soldier: high praise indeed:

Over the spiked coffee I explained to Topher that I was going to need help with my cargo. I pronounced “help” strangely, since it was hard asking for anything even when money would smooth the way. I couldn’t get “help me” to sound desirable or natural. I made it sound like indenture or something awful. He shrugged and seemed to think the whole conversation unnecessary. He worked for the captain, I was a passenger, of course he’d help me. I took a different tack. I asked him where he came from.

Here, perfectly wrought, is the misery of getting the acquiescence you want, but for the wrong reason. Topher will be his… but it seems that he can never signify for Topher. The commercial aspect of their exchange chokes out what is, to the narrator, plausible: a human connection. Over and over McConnell nails such paradoxical human moments: the vulnerability in our most confident gesture; the boredom that attends an instance of apparently pure triumph; the tenderness with which we inflict brutal punishment.

This is an utterly beautiful novel, simple but ambitious, knowing but never self-conscious, literary without ever proclaiming its own worth. It deserves acclaim, attention, awards and… your attention. Equally, you deserve the experience of reading this repeatedly astonishing book.

Richard Canning’s most recent book is E M Forster: Brief Lives (Hesperus Press. His 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read and Between Men 2 (both 2009), featuring McConnell, are published by Alyson Books.

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