What a way to end one reading year and start the next. I found Robin Robertson’s The Long Take devastating, fascinating, and beautiful.
I had never heard of Robertson until he was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, but he’s an award-winning poet “known for his exquisite descriptions of the natural world and dramatic, violent retellings of Greek myths,” according to Sibbie O’Sullivan’s review of this verse novel in the Washington Post. I’d say those talents are both on display in this story of Walker, a World War II veteran with PTSD. Marked by the war, he feels he can’t go home to Nova Scotia, to his family and the girl with “pure blue” eyes he left behind, so he wanders through New York, San Francisco, and most of all Los Angeles, looking for a way to live with himself and his pasts. Walker’s story is told mostly in verse, with prose flashbacks. But if you’re not a poetry person, don’t be put off by that. It’s simple, readable blank verse full of powerful images.John Banville’s review of The Long Take describes it as having “an epical feel” (and O’Sullivan mentions Homer). Perhaps because I just read The Odyssey, this description of Robertson’s poem resonated for me. I thought often of Odysseus, another veteratn, as I followed the wanderings of the aptly and almost allegorically named Walker; I thought, too, of the frequent eruptions of vivid and graphic violence in Homer’s epic. They’re in Robertson’s, too, as Walker works the city beat for an LA paper, showing up at one murder scene after another, “the brown / stars of blood leading down the alleys.”
Banville suggests Aeneas as a closer analogue: “Robertson sings of arms and the man, though his model is not Virgil but the movies, and in particular the black-and-white (or soot-and-silver) masterpieces” of film noir. Aeneas, who unlike Odysseus is not trying to go home, but searching for a place to found a new city. “I’ll make my city here,” Walker says in the last words of this novel. But he is no Aeneas, no epic hero. His story is one of destruction and loss, not of the triumphant beginning of something new.
In the novel’s much-quoted opening, we see a glittering, hopeful, epic image of New York:
And there it was: the swell
and glitter of it like a standing wave —
the fabled, smoking ruin, the new towers rising
through the blue,
the ranked array of ivory and gold, the glint
the glamour of buried light
as the world turned round it
this autumn morning, all amazed.
Don’t get so dazzled by the glamour of ivory and gold that you miss the smoking ruin. There’s no rest here for Walker, who realizes that “if he stayed here / he’d end up in the East River, or Hart Island / with the stillborn, the nameless, the indigent dead.”
Most often Robertson’s cities are the cities of film noir, dark places cut by geometric slices and shapes of light:
Wading through shadows, black pools,
then a long wedge of light
swinging open at an angle like a curtain
slashed by a knife. The floor tips
and drops away, and the door closes. Ink dark.
White rods slide out of the wall, razor-edged
by shadow, beginning to splay
and take in everything, then
snapping shut. Light locked
in a dark room. This whole city is a trap.
In every city he visits, Walker comes across film shoots and meets (real life) directors. (There are notes in the back to help identify the films and directors referenced). I’m sure that these allusions would be richer for someone more versed in film noir than I am, but if you’ve seen a few (or Chinatown) the noir images and themes will be familiar.
In Los Angeles, Walker finds a kind of community in the Bunker Hill neighborhood among other down-and-outs–pensioners, veterans, the lost. He makes a home in an SRO, finds the newspaper job, gets a cat. And he notices the homeless and begins to write about them, eventually sent to San Francisco to explore the problem there. It seems as if his life might be on an upward swing.
But on his return to Los Angeles, he finds his world there is being destroyed, his “slum” neighborhood pulled down for parking lots, the hills leveled, rusting oil derricks blocking the path to the ocean where he once swam. (Now, it’s full of sewage). And with their homes being destroyed, the ranks of the homeless are growing. More and more, memories of the war break in on the present-day narrative, and on Walker’s memory. This is a noir narrative, a story of the people run over in the march of post-war progress, the corruption that undergirds it.
I wrote my dissertation on Victorian depictions of the city as an unknowable, unreadable, ungraspable place, and the images and figures–like the detective–writers used to try to make sense of it. This book played into that fascination. Walker’s name, and his habit of walking through the city streets, evoke the flâneur, that detached master of urban spaces. But there’s nothing ironic or masterful about Walker’s perambulations. He is searching for a place he can fit, for a way to forget, or to remember who he was before the war. But the cities he inhabits have no place for him. In his newspaper interview, he says he’s interested in cities:
“Yes. American cities.”
“What about American cities?”
“How they fail.”
This is Robertson’s interest as well.
My first book of the year, and I can’t imagine it won’t end up being one of the best.