Friday, June 09, 2006

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I wasn't too excited by the HBO version of Empire Falls, so it put me off reading the novel for awhile (though I'm a fan of Russo's very funny Straight Man). Now that I have read it, much like the movie, I admired it, but in a detached way.

What I admire most, though, is the patience with which Russo executes the novel. It's third person omniscient and while there is a central character, Miles, the novel is not just about what happens to him, but manages to be about the specifc small town of Empire Falls and the general idea of towns like it, which are struggling to continue to exist. Despite writing mostly in scene, staying close to event and character and not spending much time on narration or grand ideas, it is still a novel with a big scope. I tend to think of big scope novels as containing Kundera-like narrators who talk to the reader about ideas just as often as they convey scene. But Russo suggests his scope fairly simply by portraying close details of large swaths of the characters' lives and giving each character enough emotional depth that ideas are suggested rather than told. Partly he does this by really taking his time with each scene. The reader is immersed in the moment and never rushed through it.

My main difficulty with the novel has to do with the plot point that ends it. I won't give it away, but it's a small town tragedy, and (perhaps this is merely a matter of taste) I tend to prefer novels (like Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter) that detail the consequences of tragedy rather than the causes. Actually I would be interested in a novel that shows the build up to tragedy, how it can happen, but the violent events here seem rather facilely treated--they feel added to the main plot in order to create a more monumental effect--and not as carefully examined as the more ordinary problems of these characters. But I tend to favor subtlety in all things, and I can still see why this novel is a critical favorite.

No comments: