Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Imaginary Friends

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Imaginary Friends

Article excerpt

Imaginary Friends

I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist.

-Mavis Gallant

THE CHARACTERS WHO INHABIT NOVELS are supposed to be like ordinary human beings, except of course that they are neither ordinary nor human. Verisimilitude is the goal of realist writers, which means appearing to be real. But is only appearing to be real being unreal? Confused yet? How do you like your fictional people: heroes, heroes until they are not, plunged into villainy by fear or ambition? Tragic? To be admired or reviled? Where do authors find such personalities: draw from life, wholly invent? Either, or both? In the end we probably feel as conflicted about fictional people as we do actual ones. The deepest bond has been called that of mother and child, and yet more than one mother has said, "Children; half the time they drive you crazy, the other half they worry you sick, but you love them anyway. Figure that out."

Taking these complexities and manufacturing them into fiction is art, and the trick of absorbing us into a story is as much about character as plot. We become curiously attached to these people for several hundred pages, and when we are done something of their dramas remains with us. Psychology and sociology can explain particular behaviors, but fiction forces us to form conclusions about humanity generally. As a race are we more Elizabeth Bennet or Raskolnikov? The jury is still out.

Pat Barker, Booker Prize winner for the third volume of her Regeneration trilogy, returns to familiar territory with her latest novel1 set in war-torn Europe in 1914-1915 during the early lives of young artists who meet at the prestigious Slade School. Paul Tarrant wants to be a painter but elicits only critical comments from his master in the life drawing class. He alternates between artistic aspiration and a growing sense of failure. Elinor Brooke, a physician's daughter, has won a scholarship but questions her potential, while mutual friend Kit Neville competes for Elinor's affections but is secretly attracted to Paul. Elinor is cool and genteel, still a virgin and resistant to the blandishments of both men who imagine the world is now reinvented (Virginia Woolf was correct about 1910). Paul's fling with an artist's model escaping an abusive husband makes him sexually freer, too much so for Elinor.

When war erupts, Paul and Kit go to Belgium as volunteers for ambulance duty, but spend more time as orderlies and volunteer nurses. Amputations, gangrene, death and dying, cold, hunger, and fatigue quickly put their own prewar existence of studios and tearooms into perspective. Barker is at her best as a descriptive writer, using sight, sound, and smell to create a portrait. "They'd been drawing for over half an hour. There was no sound except for the slurring of the pencils on Michelet paper or the barely perceptible squeak of charcoal. At the center of the circle of students, close to the dais, a stove cast a barred red light onto the floor. The smell of burning coke mingled with other smells: sweat, hot cloth, cigar and tobacco smoke. Now and again you could hear the soft pop of lips inhaling and another plume of blue smoke would rise to join the pall that hung over the whole room."

Elinor, now left at home with the men gone to the front, hangs with the Bloomsbury crowd but becomes disenchanted with their upper-class bohemianism. When she decides to go to Belgium to see Paul, she has made a choice to throw over her reluctance and see what can really happen between them. Barker's prose style has a simple elegance that never overplays its hand. We know the characters as if we are in their skin, and the result is an honest and clever reconstruction of life as it was at the beginning of what we call modernity.

James Meek has written a novel2 detailing the fast unraveling of a British journalist sent to cover the war in Afghanistan who finds afterwards that the combat zone was the most comprehensible place in his life; everything after that becomes increasingly unclear and unmoored. …

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