The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin marks the debut of a talented new American writer. A lovely review at Chalk the Sun inspired me to read the novel, and I encourage you to read it as well. Here, I want to raise a question that came from reading Coplin’s book on the heels of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, a question that, frankly, I’m struggling to frame.
Midway through The Orchardist I paused and asked myself, why am I reading this? Is it believable? (I had a similar experience reading Gardam’s novel.) Coplin’s spare, post-modern prose was controlled and the voice unique. The setting—the dry eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains at the turn of the 20th Century—was also unique and evocatively rendered. The characters possessed a timeless, mythic quality as if carved from stone, and the story itself, as one book blurb described it, felt as if it were the subject of an old folksong. But for me the book was flawed; I couldn’t figure out why, but I wasn’t buying it.
So, my question may be this: What is gained by imagining the past if we reshape it to our own vision? Or perhaps this: If a story is based on an imaginary past, can it succeed as serious literature?
Both Coplin and Gardam invent a past shaped more by their own imaginations, by their own emotions toward the curious worlds they conjure, than by the historical record. Though Gardam does not entirely ignore a century’s milestones, both writers fail to persuade me that their inventions are anything more than romantic hallucinations.
One can argue that all history is a re-imagining, a re-visioning of the past. But history relies on testimony—new facts, or overlooked facts, but always something factual from the record. Fiction needs no facts, and may even be harmed by them. But if a writer places a story within the historical context, can the temporal facts, any more than the laws of physics, be disregarded? When a writer imagines a story in turn-of-the-century Washington State that behaves like a gothic romance in the vein of Wuthering Heights, as Amanda Coplin does, am I, the reader, to accept this as a representation of the truth, or even a poetic truth?
In a Seattle Times interview, Coplin acknowledges that she wholly invented the heinous crime that launches her story. Her main character, Talmadge, the orchardist, seems ageless and monolithic in his solitude and silence and fixed compassion—archetypal perhaps, yet hardly historically authentic. Coplin’s other characters, the feral sisters Jane and Della for example, seem no more real except in the raw emotions that propel them. And the villain, described in the New York Times as “an evildoer of spaghetti-western proportions,” suffers from a similar lack of verisimilitude.
Even the land Coplin so evocatively conjures—the canyon orchards and pine forests—assumes a virtual reality. Like the heath in Hardy’s novels or Bronte’s moors, the terrain becomes a stage set, despite the inclusion of real place names.
As I read on I kept asking myself, what am I to glean from this well-written novel? Am I to revise my historical perspective of the western frontier? Coplin’s post-modern style might imply that. Am I to view her characters as American archetypes? Their unchanging, stone-like nature might imply that as well, and the orchard setting seems primed for a parable or allegory. But, if so, about what?
As you can see, I had trouble putting my finger on the problem I had with a book I nonetheless enjoyed reading. So I compared it to other books.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian came to mind. Written in an equally spare, post-modern style, it is equally evocative of the western terrain, with equally fixed, archetypal characters. And if ever there was a book conjured from an author’s imagination, Blood Meridian is it. But the truth coursing through Blood Meridian comes from a historical fact—the existence of the scalp-hunting Glanton gang—and from the thematic postulate asserted in its epigraph (taken from a real newspaper article): that killing is the natural state of man. Is Coplin arguing that mute nurturing is our natural state? Without some historical basis, I can’t, I don’t buy it. The story rings false, fanciful, and the inherent tragedy seems contrived—the stuff of gothic romance.
Coplin mentions the influence of the great Australian writer Patrick White, in particular his novel Voss. I wish she had studied White’s even better novel, The Tree of Man. White conveys the same physical and emotional isolation she does but he avoids imagined evil and its sensational consequences; his book remains grounded in the lyrical truth of historical experience and expands because of it.
Marcel Proust believed a single book does not allow us to know an author. Only through multiple books can we distinguish what is book-specific from what is distinctive about the author. Curiously, McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, suffers from the same post-modern gothic excess as The Orchardist. Let us look forward to what Amanda Coplin writes next in order to see what is truly distinctive about her vision. I believe she is capable of work as exciting and as extraordinary as McCarthy’s or White’s.
With a bang, a whimper, or medium-rare with ketchup?
I first read On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel, as a freshman in high school. I’d already seen the movie, starring Gregory Peck as the U.S. submarine captain and Ava Gardner as the woman who falls in love with him, so the book seemed, well, anticlimactic. By 1968, after the Cuban missile crisis and years of air-raid drills, the possibility of nuclear annihilation was part of our psyche. You just lived with it.
Shute, a successful aeronautical engineer and prolific writer who emigrated from England to Australia after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, published On the Beach in 1957. It was not the first but was certainly the most popular work of fiction to warn of nuclear holocaust. Other novels and films quickly followed. From A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Fail-Safe (1962) to Dr. Strangelove (1964), artists used speculative drama and satire to address a fear that was all too real.
In Shute’s version of the end, the Northern Hemisphere has destroyed itself after “the Irresponsibles”—small nations with a handful of nuclear bombs—draw the nuclear superpowers into a third world war. Now the winds are gradually carrying cobalt radiation to the south, and the main characters, who live in Melbourne, Australia, face imminent death.
The way Shute’s characters behave as they wait for the end seemed improbable to my freshman mind. Sure, some overindulge with alcohol, but most either live in a state of conscious denial, pretending the end isn’t coming in order to preserve life’s routines, or they fearlessly attempt what they had only dreamed of doing before.
“If what they say is right, we’re none of us going to have time to do all that we planned to do,” says the plucky heroine to another woman. “But we can keep on doing it as long as we can.”
For the six months remaining to them, people go about their jobs, plant gardens for the following year, and take courses to improve their career prospects. When the end does come, most retire to their beds and swallow a little white pill dispensed by a well-prepared government.
Compare that scenario with Cormac McCarthy’s savage end in The Road (2006). There, an unexplained event has launched the planet into nuclear winter. The few survivors must grub for food and defend themselves from robbers and cannibals even as they escape the encroaching cold, gradually sicken from radiation poisoning and die.
When mankind’s end comes, I suspect McCarthy’s is the more likely scenario. Nevertheless, Shute, despite serving in both world wars, maintained a great faith in ordinary human decency, even in situations of extreme stress. In A Town Like Alice, his characters survive a torturous wartime captivity in Malaya by protecting and caring for one another. In Pastoral, his RAF pilots and WAAFs put their duties and comrades before their personal lives. In Shute’s world, decency is the outer projection of human dignity, and kindness is at the core of his own brand of existentialism.
I had dismissed On the Beach as a time capsule that lost its vigor with the end of the Cold War. Yet, when I reread it recently, I came away with a new appreciation. How might the world end? I asked myself. There seem more ways now than ever. How would people behave? More to the point, how would I behave if I knew I had only six months to live?… And then it struck me—the book has a metaphorical significance I’d overlooked as a high-school freshman. For who isn’t facing the end?
“On the beach,” it turns out, is not only an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” but Royal Navy slang for retirement from the service. This year I have the good fortune to turn sixty. Like other baby-boomers I am heading (slowly, I hope) toward my own time on the beach. I’ve seen friends before me deal with this eventuality in different ways. Some have remained in denial (60 is the new 40!). Others have made breathless lists of places to go and things to do (seize the day!). A few have already confronted the approaching drift of death.
Hmm, now where have I seen such behaviors described before?
The big question lying within Shute’s book remains as pertinent as ever. When our time comes, as it must, will we face our demise with the bravery, civility and consideration that his characters do? I hope so; it sure beats cannibals.
Outtake from “The Road” (Sony Pictures, 2009)
Filed under Commentary, Reviews
Tagged as Aging and death, Australia, Cormac McCarthy, Nevil Shute, Nuclear war, On the Beach, Retirement, The Road