Review: Time Among the Dead, by Thomas Rayfiel

When I picked up Thomas Rayfiel's newest novel Time Among the Dead I was curious mostly because of the way in which it had been described to me. Perhaps due to misinformation, or perhaps in an effort to gain more readership, it had been illustrated as "ranking with other recent Neo-Victorian publications - Such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters - without having to resort to anything paranormal", and as "written in a British Regency style [reminiscent of] Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters." All I can say is, I hope that "Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters" is a band from the late 1800s that I've never heard of because the book lived up to none of its descriptors.

First of all, to describe something as Regency would be to say that it has been written in a style captured best by novels from 1811 to 1820. To describe something as Neo-Victorian would be to say that it has been written in a style that captures the essence of the Victorian era, that is 1837 to 1901. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, being based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility would be considered Neo-Georgian or Neo-Regency (because the source was published in 1811, but the original manuscript was written prior to 1796). Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë are all Victorian writers (not Regency) and they all wrote in very dissimilar fashions. 
What this novel should be compared to is Barbara Michaels' Mystery on the Moors (later retitled Sons of the Wolf) which is an epistolary novel written in the popular Neo-Gothic style (i.e. actually reminiscent of Jane Eyre) as adopted in the late 1960s.

Time Among the Dead focuses on the last weeks of an old man's life. His grandson has given him a journal, but it's never explained as to why. Did he want his grandfather to write about the past? About his current pain? About his wishes for the future? His will, perhaps? What we end up with is a few panicky entries from an old man who finally has time to sit and consider his life for what it has been - a disappointment.

Unfortunately, it's completely stagnant. The old man doesn't attempt to better his life, nor does he change his ways. In revisiting his past, it seems the reader is expected to acknowledge and accept his reasons for being the way he is. In the end, it seems that his tolerance for modernity and "the way things are" seems to increase only as it encompasses his former actions, but to what ends?

Written now, when gay men and women are struggling for acceptance and for equal human rights, what does it matter that an old man has become semi-tolerant of his grandson's potential proclivity towards homosexuality? What are we supposed to get out of this? A few shots of young man's bare chest and a shock-inducing (not) moment where the word "penis" is mentioned? The whole of the novel gives the impression of trying too hard to not try hard enough.

Fleshed out, it could be a really interesting study on sex and lables in whatever period it's supposed to be, and in the hands of a very great author, it could be a good novel. But the theme of homosexuality is so side-stepped and so carefully handled that all we get is limp prose in an impotent style.

Time Among the Dead
By Thomas Rayfiel
Permanent Press
(June 1, 2010)


Review: The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, by Elizabeth Hardwick

My knowledge of Elizabeth Hardwick is limited: I’ve read her 1974 collection Seduction and Betrayal, and I knew she was from Kentucky. Thus ends my knowledge. However in reading this new collection being released in June of this year, I felt as if Elizabeth Hardwick knew me. Hardwick died in 2007, so she couldn’t possibly know the “me” I’m talking about – the “me” hardened by being “very busy” as “the urban clocks tick away fatefully,” the “me” that has learned to know and appreciate what it is to be “permanently temporary.”  On some deep and dark level, her stories of New York relate inherently to the New Yorker. The beautiful imagery, the fated language, everything points to New York as what it is, what it has always been – a constant study in transience, a timeless hub of all entertainment, a preoccupation with being preoccupied--for all of us are transients in the world of showbiz, keeping ourselves preoccupied. 

Hardwick’s themes are timeless (love, beauty, missed opportunities, innocence – and how we notice these things once we’ve left the city, superficiality, education, talent – and how they contradict one another), even if all of her people and places are not as timeless. Her characterization of Mrs. Wayland in “A Season’s Romance is that of a gritty Lady Catherine de Bourgh; there will always be women like her and she lasts in our modern memory. But in the same story, her daughter Adele is trapped within her mother’s web like a “povera butterfly” because she could not shed her talent and artistry for the sake of superficiality. This is something that we see less and less of as time goes on. Women are stronger than that now. What may have been true of women in society in 1956, when the story was written, is not true today. Just like the Fifth Avenue bus that runs north to south today but in “The Purchase” (1959) it runs in the opposite direction. 

I felt sad in “Shot: A New York Story” when we met Joseph, whose reaction to Zona’s death is “I’ve known Zona for fifteen years. A long time for New York, I guess.” It’s a statement more than truthful in its evaluation of the New York connection. Yet, in our transience we feel “equal to the disappointments and irritations of life even if [we are] certainly not above them.”  Even in death, our brief relationship with a person will continue to engender an elaborate bridge of loose connections on which the city is founded and refounded with each passing generation.This is what Hardwick understands, and what this collection allows us to hear from her -- that New York is not just a city, but a living, breathing thing with synapses just lying in wait for a connection to need them. It is a chemical wasteland from which life and art is sprung on the smallest of scales.

Our entry into the collection is a story of a New Yorker going back to her Kentucky roots. The personal feel of this story - knowing that Hardwick was from Kentucky and that this story was likely very close to her own revelations about her family and her past - it makes her vulnerable and that much more relatable. We're invited not only into Hardwick's observations of the city, but into her heart. Every sad love story and every bitter ending - they are hers, and they are ours. They belong to New York, as we do. 

There were some points where I felt like the stories were really grasping to belong in the collection. Some stories just don't reflect or involve New York so much as the others, but overall it works and it manages to maintain Hardwick's cynicism from front to back with few interruptions. It is well-conceived and bears the mark of a true New Yorker without alienating other readers. But more than anything, it made me feel at home. 

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick
By Elizabeth Hardwick
256 pages
NYRB Classics 
(June 1, 2010)