“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 bookson their shelves or in the piles by their bed—or wherever,that stare out forlornly, unrequited, waiting to be pickedup, 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 hehad read Scott Spencer's newest novel, A Ship Made ofPaper. This triggered my recollection that I have threeor four of Spencer's novels. And have read exactly none. Respectfor Price's judgment and curiosity and a quickly skimmed reviewin The New Yorker had me emailing the Ecco Presspublicist the next day.

And when Tommy, the UPS driver, delivered my requested copyI burned right through it. Scott Spencer's tale of an adulterousaffair between a white lawyer, Daniel Emerson, and a blackperpetual graduate student, Iris Davenport, is engaging andambitious, 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 journalistwho is professionally obsessed with the in-progress O.J. Simpsontrial. And Hampton, the tight-sphinctered buppy investmentbanker who is Iris' husband and father of young Nelson. Alsothere are Kate's young daughter and a dog and old friendsand the parents of the main actors and your usual assortmentof small-town weirdos—generally a full and entertainingsupporting cast. Not to mention a few plot twists and turnswhich bring this tale to a boil and then just in time, toa simmer before the pot overflows.

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

''Meta'' is a liminal term these days; it's creepingmore and more into everyday conversations, even if it's notnearly as widespread as, say, ''irony.'' Some people talkabout meta all the time. Recently a friend and I were e-mailingback and forth, trying to sort out our plans to catch an eveningmovie, when we started to discuss how we were going to makethe decision itself -- should we stick to e-mail or switchto instant messaging or the phone? ''This is getting too meta,''he wrote. ''Just call me.'' Other people, including anothermovie-steeped friend, may not recognize the term ''meta,''but they know exactly what it is all the same; on the basisof a quick definition, my friend could instantly list a half-dozengood examples: ''Oh, I get it. Beavis and Buttheadwas a music-video show about watching music videos, and thatteen film Not Another Teen Movie had a characterwhose only name was the Token Black Guy.''

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

…When Daniel rhapsodizes about entering ''a higherplane of feeling, a higher plane of devotion and a higherplane of pleasure,'' he unconsciously echoes the medievalchivalric romances that invented this vision of sublime love.Yet in those stories, desire's power comes not just from society'sopposition to the lovers but also from the lovers' rejectionof society. The intensity of Lancelot and Guinevere's lovewas 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 achievetrue radiance. When Kate wonders if ''all those emotions wecall love turn out to be what's really worst in us, what ifit's all the firings of the foulest, most primitive part ofthe back brain, what if it's just as savage and selfish asrage or greed or lust,'' she's not entirely wrong. But wholistens to her, anyway?

Actually, Daniel listens to Kate. And after the she deliversthe soliloquy below, he decides—he considers his response—itwas 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 poundedin on us at all times, every radio station, every TV station,all the magazines, all the ads, everywhere, it's like livingin a theocracy, it's like living in Jordan and people areshouting out lines from the Koran from the top of every mosque.Love, love, love, but what they are really saying is: Takewhat you want and the hell with everything else. We have evenchanged the Bible to go along with this new religion. WhenI was a kid, people used to read Paul's letter to the Corinthiansas being about charity—it used to be faith, hope andcharity, remember charity? the humility of that?—butnow they've changed the translation and it's not charity atall, it's love. Big old encompassing love, spreading all overeverything like swamp gas. Love is like a crystal ball, yougaze into its cracked heart and you see what you want to see.It's really scary. It feels like the whole culture has goneinsane.

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

Spring Comes to the Squamsit River

Spring Comes to the Squamsit River
foto by Robert Birnbaum

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