Some problem, eh? It's the opposite of what we've been led to expect from the titans of TV news, those men — and it's mostly men — who are more often accused of firing the homely, not the comely.
George Clooney appears on CNN to drum up concern for a tragedy in some obscure corner of the globe, I find it hard to focus. That doesn't mean he shouldn't try; it just means that most of us are pretty shallow.
If my friend's former boss were a reader of anything other than ratings reports, he might share my objection to "On Canaan's Side" (Viking), the new novel by Irish writer Sebastian Barry,: It's filled with distractingly stunning language.
Barry is extravagantly talented, and his slim, carefully wrought novels feature rhetorical flourishes that beg to be read aloud — but too many times, all that gorgeousness gets in the way of the story. The beauty of the descriptions can stop the action dead in its tracks.
Lovely language is a rare and splendid thing, and to find myself questioning a book that partakes of words as lilting and mellifluous as Barry's is surprising and uncomfortable. Yet increasingly, I feel a certain impatience with writers who seem to sweat all day over a lush image or clever turn of phrase — while letting the characters cool their heels, waiting to be allowed to embrace their fates, to get on with the business of the story.
Let's put it this way: I love Barry's way with a sentence. I'm less enamored of his way with a novel.
"On Canaan's Side" is a first-person account by a sensitive, large-hearted woman named Lily Bere. She is old now, and fathoms-deep in grief over the death of her grandson. In the course of 17 days, she offers the story of her life, from her upbringing in Ireland during the dark days of World War I through the travails of 20th century America, the land to which she is sent by her worried father. A crucial scene takes place at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Those who know Barry's work will recognize the name of Lily's brother, who dies in the opening pages of "On Canaan's Side": Willie Dunne. He is the hero of the author's masterpiece, "A Long Long Way" (2005). In the latter book, however, the abstract lyricism is balanced by the toughness of the descriptions of the hell into which Willie is thrust. Beautiful metaphors are matched by specific horrors. The cadence of the language has a point and a purpose: "He must have whispered last rites to headless men," Barry writes of Father Buckley, the battlefield priest, "and also to men with only a head left and the rest blown into a billion drops of air … and strained not to lie to any dying man, to steady him and ready him for the off, like a flighty horse in the stalls before a race."
In "On Canaan's Side," too many poetic passages seem to have been written to evoke admiration rather than to flesh out a character or to nudge the plot along. Here is Lily, describing the mood of the house after the news of Willie's death: "The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar. I will be bound it is still there, if there were only someone with a heart to sense it, someone there that knew Willie Dunne, a lost name in the history of the world."
The longer that passage rolled around in my head, the more it sounded like something written by a writer — not an emotion felt by a human being. By contrast, almost nothing in "A Long Long Way" sounds remotely contrived. Its words may be musical, but the music is played on a broken harp, and there is nothing artificial or trumped up about the emotions at its core. The language has a sharp utility beyond its beauty. The beauty is almost beside the point.
Would that the same could be said of "On Canaan's Side," a novel whose prose tries very hard to do what "A Long Long Way" does so effortlessly, with such simple, heartbreaking eloquence. Lily never comes to life in the way her brother does in "A Long Long Way."
Language can let us in or keep us out, and in "On Canaan's Side" the language — while shimmering, while magnificent — is like a closed door, forbidding access to the joy and anguish of the souls within.