“Scott Spencer’s newest novel, A Ship Made of Paper” –March 23, 2003

Many people who own what they call a library or a book collection (no numerical threshold required) probably have a few books on their shelves or in the piles by their bed—or wherever, that stare out forlornly, unrequited, waiting to be picked up, waiting to be read. How does this happen? Who can say, but we could all do worse than to have too many books…

In talking to Richard Price recently, he mentioned that he had read Scott Spencer’s newest novel, A Ship Made of Paper. This triggered my recollection that I have three or four of Spencer’s novels. And have read exactly none. Respect for Price’s judgment and curiosity and a quickly skimmed review in The New Yorker had me emailing the Ecco Press publicist the next day.

And when Tommy, the UPS driver, delivered my requested copy I burned right through it. Scott Spencer’s tale of an adulterous affair between a white lawyer, Daniel Emerson, and a black perpetual graduate student, Iris Davenport, is engaging and ambitious, and dare I sink further into book cover blurb jargon, well crafted. In this novel’s small New York town there are, of course, additionally the castoff partners of the adulterers: Kate Ellis, the smart, twice-over novelist and journalist who is professionally obsessed with the in-progress O.J. Simpson trial. And Hampton, the tight-sphinctered buppy investment banker who is Iris’ husband and father of young Nelson. Also there are Kate’s young daughter and a dog and old friends and the parents of the main actors and your usual assortment of small-town weirdos—generally a full and entertaining supporting cast. Not to mention a few plot twists and turns which bring this tale to a boil and then just in time, to a simmer before the pot overflows.

I was content to view Spencer’s novel with a simple appreciation. And then I chanced to look at Laura Miller’s review in the Sunday Times. Now Ms. Miller is a smart lady and a good reader and an articulate and thoughtful writer, even if she did write a dumbed down article for the New York Times Magazine, "This Is a Headline For an Essay About Meta." (Nov 17,2002):

”Meta” is a liminal term these days; it’s creeping more and more into everyday conversations, even if it’s not nearly as widespread as, say, ”irony.” Some people talk about meta all the time. Recently a friend and I were e-mailing back and forth, trying to sort out our plans to catch an evening movie, when we started to discuss how we were going to make the decision itself — should we stick to e-mail or switch to instant messaging or the phone? ”This is getting too meta,” he wrote. ”Just call me.” Other people, including another movie-steeped friend, may not recognize the term ”meta,” but they know exactly what it is all the same; on the basis of a quick definition, my friend could instantly list a half-dozen good examples: ”Oh, I get it. Beavis and Butthead was a music-video show about watching music videos, and that teen film Not Another Teen Movie had a character whose only name was the Token Black Guy.”

But I digress. Ms Miller’s view of A Ship Made of Paper was a learned (she seems to have read all eight of Spencer’s novels) exegesis and seemed to be sensitive to the nuances of Spencer’s effort. And though I disagree with her view of the way Daniel and Iris experience their incendiary connection, I was also launched into a bit of ho humming and wondering if I had majored in English would I be looking at all my reading in the following way:

…When Daniel rhapsodizes about entering ”a higher plane of feeling, a higher plane of devotion and a higher plane of pleasure,” he unconsciously echoes the medieval chivalric romances that invented this vision of sublime love. Yet in those stories, desire’s power comes not just from society’s opposition to the lovers but also from the lovers’ rejection of society. The intensity of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love was fueled in part by hatred: of mundane order and its obligations, of life’s disappointing lack of opportunities for transcendence, of the world itself. Without acknowledging this darkness, the lovers of ‘A Ship Made of Paper‘ can’t achieve true radiance. When Kate wonders if ”all those emotions we call love turn out to be what’s really worst in us, what if it’s all the firings of the foulest, most primitive part of the back brain, what if it’s just as savage and selfish as rage or greed or lust,” she’s not entirely wrong. But who listens to her, anyway?

Actually, Daniel listens to Kate. And after the she delivers the soliloquy below, he decides—he considers his response—it was better not to respond.

Love has become some insane substitute for religion. I think that’s what’s happened. And in this country it’s pounded in on us at all times, every radio station, every TV station, all the magazines, all the ads, everywhere, it’s like living in a theocracy, it’s like living in Jordan and people are shouting out lines from the Koran from the top of every mosque. Love, love, love, but what they are really saying is: Take what you want and the hell with everything else. We have even changed the Bible to go along with this new religion. When I was a kid, people used to read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as being about charity—it used to be faith, hope and charity, remember charity? the humility of that?—but now they’ve changed the translation and it’s not charity at all, it’s love. Big old encompassing love, spreading all over everything like swamp gas. Love is like a crystal ball, you gaze into its cracked heart and you see what you want to see. It’s really scary. It feels like the whole culture has gone insane.

It seems to me that, in this story, is one of Daniel better decisions.

Spring Comes to the Squamsit River

Spring Comes to the Squamsit River
foto by Robert Birnbaum

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