Samuel Johnson once crafted a simultaneously admiring and damning summation of the work of novelist Samuel Richardson with this statement: "[i]f you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment." Replace "Richardson" with Banville" and both "sentiment"s with "characterization" and you have a relatively fair assessment of John Banville's Shroud (2002).
Shroud places two odd personages in explosive proximity and then steps back to see what happens. Cass Cleave, a mentally unstable young woman with an Electra complex, provokes a meeting with an ancient, narcissistic academic whom she has discovered to have underhandedly taken on the pseudonym Axel Vander in his late adolescence. Cleave's lack of clarity regarding what she would like to accomplish with the encounter finds its parallel in the story's uncertainty about what exactly it proposes to do with the reader it has invited into its pages.
As improbable as it may sound given the description above, Shroud might best be described as a love story. "Vander" watches his body decay and finds little to comfort him in his long-held, militant disbelief in inherent individuality. What he therefore allows himself to discover, in Cass and in retrospective consideration of his past affairs, is that despite what philosophers might posit about the unimportance of the self, the strange human habit of loving and coupling provides a constant, insistent rebuttal.
Posted by Mille Feuille