A few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.
Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.
Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, … Continue reading →