Our narrator, Anna Blume, has slipped across the border into an urban space that used to be like our own, but has experienced some inexplicable blight. Everything has broken down, from government services (except, tellingly, the daily collection of dead bodies) and protections to basic codes of civility, man's instinctual desire for survival, and even biological systems of individuals. The gruesome imagined world allows Auster to paint the latent selfishness we all carry with us, and how it rises to the surface in savage circumstances. In that respect, it shares its technique with the most moving of novels about war and natural disaster. However, because the cause of this barbarism is unknown, the focus homes in not on the politics of societies but on the actions of individuals that contribute to the overall degradation.
Anna maintains her will to live, and her instincts to do so, by crafting temporary communities to which she can commit. She sacrifices her own safety to save an elderly woman on the street, and then makes that woman into a surrogate mother figure with whom she lives and to whom she dedicates her energies and resources. Once the woman dies, she spends her last funds on an extravagent act of mourning, and goes out to look for death or another community. Tracking Anna's mood and health to her ability to create a common cause with others, Auster underscores that the sacrifices that we make in the development of relationships to be, finally, investments in our own endurance.
Within the context of Anna's life, writing is the other saving grace, and even this is social. Her narrative addresses an old friend from outside the country of last things, explaining to him the physical and social landscape in which she finds herself doomed to pass the rest of her days. As such, the story reminds us what dedicated readers sometimes fail to adequately consider: why we read. Communities, especially in the modern world, pop up in ways beyond the physical, and writing can be our greatest tool to draw people together for our collective survival.
Versions of how men confront aging define the collection. The novella "Chaos" tells the story of an older author's gradual winding down of his profession and his life-long relationships. The novella ornaments its gray-toned narrative with wit, most notable in Jack's half-loving, half-mocking descriptions of a younger generation of gay men whose values and foibles differ from that of his own earlier years, and who he finds repulsive in the aggregate yet compelling as individuals. The final story, "A Good Sport," also explores the life of an aging gay man in retirement. The narrator, unlike Jack, accepts his fading sex life more calmly, sinking his energies into an old friendship and an opium-induced fantasy, part historical fiction, part the male equivalent of a bodice-ripper.
Because White's talent lies in quietly revealing the quirks of character developed over lifetimes of experience, his skills are better adapted to the mid-length "Chaos" than to the shorter pieces. These latter rarely incite the reader's engagement. On a sentence to sentence level, White is a master. From page to page, however, he is rather more uneven.
A narrative, a history lesson, a treatise on the material culture of Europe before WWI, a reflection on the various burdens of the woman's condition: A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book defies a basic generic descriptor. For whatever else it may be, it is a surprisingly long novel in the contemporary market, and quite an ambitious one at that.
The novel takes place in England, and spans the years between the establishment of the Fabian Society and the end of the first World War. It casts its net over a broad cast of characters, from the working class potter Philip and his sister Elsie to a German puppeteer to an egocentric author of children's literature, Olive Wellwood, and her unconventional family. Like the fairy tales of Olive (and of most good children's fiction writers), Byatt's world is peopled by adults who are largely unimportant except insofar as their actions, beliefs, ambitions, and interests shape the generation of children who celebrate Midsummer's Eve in 1895. It is a generation that grows with the promise of equality among the classes, better opportunities for women, and more sexual freedom than the Victorian era had afforded. It is a generation that crumbles under the pressure of failed social movements and unspeakable violence in the trenches of Europe.
To recount the particular actions of individual characters would be to miss the point. In fact, when Byatt goes wrong, it is by getting too particular (usually in a way either unbelievable or mawkishly sentimental) with the telling of her characters' lives. At no point do any of them stand out as fully-developed subjects. Rather, they each stand in for a way of life peculiarly open to this particular generation. The personages of the story come in and out of the reader's awareness, briefly personifying a dilemma, a freedom, or a theory that shaped the age.The broad cast buoys up this unique narrative style, and successfully creates the era itself as the protagonist--a not unimpressive feat.
Byatt's vision of an era alternatively propelled by the mystical or the Utopian and the supremely practical is impressive. It is occasionally marred, however, with the sudden narration of unrelated historical facts, or with a ham-fisted psychologizing of these characters otherwise defined for the reader through action. The useless insertion of incest and suicide suggest a grasped at, and missed, profundity in the creation of a character. Worse, these moments, for a short time, destroy the truly interesting creation of the collective psychology that is this novel's real innovation. Although not perfect, The Children's Book has a great deal to offer.