Monday, October 8, 2012

A Perfect Novel: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something to be said for experimentation in literature.  When authors play with form and technique in the right way, the results can be breathtaking, as evidenced by works as disparate as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the recent NW by Zadie Smith, and the bulk of the oeuvres of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  From these authors' willingness to take chances, pleasure is bestowed upon the reader.

Similarly, there is something to be said for a good, old fashioned, linear novel.  I have read several of these this year, most recently, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I don't want to group books unnecessarily, but in 2012, I have had the pleasure of reading a handful of brilliantly conceived, expertly executed novels by three powerhouse British female authors: Penelope Lively, Barbara Pym, and now, Penelope Fitzgerald.  All I can say is: wow.  The Booker Prize was bestowed upon Lively's Moon Tiger in 1987, and Fitzgerald's Offshore in 1979.  Pym was nominated for Quartet in Autumn in 1977.  In all three cases, the Booker judges knew what they were talking about.

In my readings of the history of the dying art form known as soap operas, I have learned that in their heyday, these shows won people over with nothing more complicated than what Stephen King has extolled time and again in his essays on fiction: good, solid storytelling.  People have always enjoyed a good story: cleverly plotted, skillfully paced, with characters who resonate, or at least elicit a genuine response.  There is something to be said for a novel that gets about its business right away, in a succinct, economical style.  Certainly we don't want all novels to be like this, but there is a reason that certain books have held up over the years.

Penelope Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century.  To be more specific, she was thrice nominated for the Booker, winning for Offshore.  Her 1995 novel The Blue Flower, arguably considered her masterpiece, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  And on the Times' list of The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945, she ranked 23rd.  Clearly, a writer of many accolades.

I came to Offshore with high expectations, having wanted to read it for about a decade.  I was in a bit of a post-brilliance lull, not sure what I could read that would in any way measure up to Zadie Smith's NW.  I tackled a slight but charming novel by Stephen McCauley, Insignificant Others, which bought me some time, but was hoping for something a little more this time around.  Or maybe not.  After all, in a year that has blessed me with so many great reads thus far, perhaps I would not happen upon another five star book for a while.

Yet, Offshore is one of the best novels I've ever read.  The setting is the Thames River in London in 1962.  A group of residents reside on riverboats, or barges, separated from the people on land and gauging much of their activity by the rise and fall of the river's tides.  Richard and his unhappy wife Laura live on Lord Jim; Maurice, a male prostitute, resides on Maurice; Willis, a hapless older man, is the owner of the leaking Dreadnought; and Nedda and her two daughters, Martha and Tilda, call Grace home.  There is also Woodie and his wife Janet, whose boat Rochester becomes a temporary boarding home when some of the other river dwellers undergo minor tragedies.  Throw in a criminal named Harry, who is using Maurice to store stolen goods, and a pregnant rat-chasing cat named Stripey, and you have the recipe for a book that is an interesting (and natural) combination of comedy of manners, domestic drama, love story, and crime caper.

Fitzgerald throws us into the action with a languorous but important opening scene that involves a monthly meeting of the boat owners, in which they discuss important issues and basic boat business.  Like a motley home owners association!  The book unfolds at a nice pace.  Offshore is by no means plot driven, but there is definite forward momentum and plenty of activity for all of the characters.  There is never a dull moment, and Fitzgerald's characterizations are strong enough that you come to care for everyone, even the supporting players like Mr. and Mrs. Woodie.  Although, again, the novel is more character than plot-driven, the various threads do come together in a well-choreographed manner at the denouement.  I walked away from the book feeling fully satisfied, in spite of a final scene that leaves you hanging and raises questions about most of the characters' fates!  In some strange way, this is comforting. 

In closing, I will say that this is a short novel, clocking in at 141 pages, and one in which every single sentence seems to matter.  There is no excess here, nothing that seem pointless or wasteful.  Sprinkled throughout are perfectly crafted sentences, insightful dialogue, and moments of quiet beauty.  Offshore is a book that simultaneously moves quickly, and yet lingers on life's little moments with a striking clarity.  I would recommend it without reservation and go so far as to say it's that rare thing, a perfect novel.

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