Friday, May 6, 2011

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants: A Novel
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Being in the used book business, I have a different perspective on bestsellers.  I have learned that I don't have to rush out and buy the hot new novel because sooner or later it will show up on my sorting table.  A few years ago, while I was waiting to run across a copy of Sara Gruen's novel Water For Elephants, I found, totally by accident, her first novel Riding Lessons.  I had just finished reading Jane Smiley's book Horse Heaven, which I loved, so I was excited about the possibility of another great horse novel.  Riding Lessons was nothing like Horse Heaven -- Gruen's debut book  is essentially a romance novel set on a horse farm, with some family drama thrown in.  The horses are a very real presence and the book was enjoyable.  I felt, toward the end, that the main character's handwringing and soul searching went on a bit too long, and the outcome was predictable, but I liked the book.  And I kept looking for Water for Elephants

Of course, everyone knows by now that Gruen's second book was a smash hit -- a bestseller around the world that has recently been made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.  (I haven't seen the movie, though I plan to, so I won't comment on it here.)  After Riding Lessons, I expected to like Water For Elephants -- after all, it had a depression era circus setting, lots of animals including Rosie the Elephant.  How could that not be appealing?  But Water For Elephants is a different class of book entirely -- it is magic.  The unusual setting is richly evoked, the characters are eccentric and engaging, both sharp edged and appealingly vulnerable.  I can't easily think of another example of a writer who has made such a leap between her first and second books.  Going from Riding Lessons to Water for Elephants is going from romance to Romance.  We're in the world of doomed love and haunted heroes now and the mysterious and menacing backdrop of the traveling circus is the perfect setting.

Sophie's Choice
Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
Because of the archetypal love triangle at its core -- the naive young hero, the sad beautiful girl with secrets, and her charismatic, demonic husband -- Water for Elephants reminded me of Sophie's Choice.  Of course, the darkness surrounding the characters in Water is not the all-encompassing darkness of the Holocaust, as it is in Styron's masterpiece.  (And Marlena is not Sophie, one of the richest characters in modern literature -- Marlena is the least realized of all the characters and for good reason -- she's not the books true heroine.) The darkness here is the depression, the poverty of the country through which the circuses travel and the constant threat of failure which hangs over their heads.  And also, unspoken but keenly felt, the darkness of the human relationship to the animals on which they depend.  Animals are everywhere in Water for Elephants, as atmosphere and background, as metaphor and reflection on human behavior, and (at least in one magnificent case) as characters.

 The hero of the novel, Jacob, is a young veterinary student who has flunked out of (or quit) school after the death of his parents and who lands quite by accident in the traveling circus.  The show's megaerie includes horses (which the love interest, Marlena rides in the most popular act), a yak, a polar bear, an orangutan -- all of which become Jacob's charges.  But it is shortly after Jacob joins that the show's owner,  Uncle Al, buys out another foundering circus and acquires Rosy.  

The elephant looms against the far sidewall, an enormous beast the color of storm clouds least ten feet tall at the shoulder.  Her skin is mottled and cracked like a scorched riverbed from the tip of her trunk all the way down to her wide feet. Only her ears are smooth.  She peers at us with eerily human eyes.  They're amber, set deep in her head, and ringed with outrageously long lashes ....

Her trunk reaches out to us, moving like an independent creature.  It waves in front of August, then Marlena, an finally, me.  At the end of it, a fingerlike protrusion wiggles and gasps.  The nostrils open and close, snuffing and blowing, and then the trunk retreats.  It swings in front of her like a pendulum, an enormous an muscled worm.  Its finger grasps stray pieces of hay from the ground and drops them again.  I watch the swaying trunk and wish it would come back.  I hold my hand out in offering, but it doesn't return.  

It's interesting that Gruen lingers longer over the first meeting of Jacob and Rosie than he does over Jacob's meeting with Marlena.  And indeed, it is Rosie as much as the girl that Jacob will remember tenderly in his old age.  Rosie, too -- maybe in truth, only -- is Jacob's lost and tragic love.

Today we are so used to images of animals -- to photographs and nature programs on TV and even IMAX documentaries in larger than life size -- that remembering what it was like in the time period Gruen writes about is very difficult.  In Depression era America, most people had seen, at most, grainy photographs or drawings of exotic animals.   Orangutans and polar bears and yaks were almost mythological.  And bringing a creature the size of Rosie -- with the imposing presence of a full grown elephant -- to small town America (America before TVs or even radios were common) would have been like touring a dinosaur today.  Only more so, because we've all seen Jurassic Park and a hundred other convincing, lifelike simulations of dinosaurs.  P.T. Barnum often said that the circus rested on two legs, clowns and elephants.  That's what the people wanted.

Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions)
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The description of Rosie reminds me first of Joseph Conrad.  There is in that monolithic image, something of the impenetrable otherness that Conrad saw in Africa and Africans.  The "other" is always the point at which the empathic imagination fails.  The greatest of writers -- think of Tolstoy -- reached the furthest.  In War and Peace Tolstoy depicted the interior lives of hundreds of characters and even horses.  Conrad's empathy failed when it approached Africans.  Melville could stand in awe of Moby Dick, be frightened and enraptured by the whale, but couldn't imagine its world.  Even Faulkner, who alone among great modern writers had a powerful empathy for nature and how the destruction of nature was linked to the destruction of Native peoples and the subjugation of blacks -- even Faulkner couldn't see Old Ben as anything but "other".  What a different story "The Bear" might be if Old Ben's perspective were included.

But we notice something in the description of Rosie.  The monolith is not just standing mute.  She reaches out.  She gestures at each of the main characters.  We feel that she wants to understand them.  To make contact.  And Jacob responds.  That response -- much more than the entertaining but predictable love triangle between August, Marlena and Jacob -- is the heartbeat of Water For Elephants.

Ape House: A Novel
Ape House by Sara Gruen

In her next novel, Ape House, Sara Gruen chose to write about Bonobos -- in many ways the most human of non-human primates, and made the decision to include the Bonobos as fully fledged characters.  

I have a review of Ape House, and more about Water for Elephants, coming soon.

1 comment:

  1. Usually, when I enjoy a book, I tend to be unhappy with the ending because it often seems to be such a letdown. However, I thought the ending of this book was very fitting for the story, and I was content as I shut the book and put it back on the bookshelf.
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