Saturday, November 19, 2011

Best Unnamed Protagonist

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

First I'll gush about being a huge fan of Julian Fellowes' period piece, Downton Abbey. Television doesn't get any better than that. I've also read Snobs, though I haven't yet gotten around to watching Gosford Park. Maybe I will today. Anyway, all this to say I was already primed to love this book.

The basics...

Genre General Fiction

How it starts The narrator finds a letter from Damian Baxter among his bills and daily mail. It's a surprise because he hasn't spoken to Damian in forty years. It's also a surprise because he hates Damian.

Page 4 quote

I hasten to add that I wasn't offended by this unexpected delivery. Not in the least. It is always pleasant to hear from an old friend but at my age it is, if anything, more interesting to hear from an old enemy.
General premise Damian Baxter is dying. He wants to leave his five-million-pound fortune to a child he fathered almost forty years ago, but his only link to the child is an anonymous letter. Even though they haven't spoken since their dramatic falling out, he asks the only other person who knew all the women he'd slept with back then to track them down and discreetly figure out which of their children is his - including the woman both of them had been in love with. The book seamlessly goes back and forth between the modern-day search and the London Season of 1968, when Damian Baxter burst into the lives of the upper class kids these people had been, and changed them forever.

Nameless Narrator

This book does many things well. I'm highlighting this aspect because I started writing a review and only then realized I didn't know the narrator's name. It's the most impressively unobtrusive use of this style I've come across. I didn't miss the name at all.

More interesting are the questions Past Imperfect raises. Would you do a favor for the person who ruined your life? Why would having inherited money, a family crest, and a traceable lineage inherently make people "better" than those around them, even when it becomes clear those people can't survive in the modern world without a system that props them up - and the system's crumbling all around them? Does it ever do any good to tell an idiot that they're an idiot?

Another fascinating thing was the "bottom of the top" nature of the narrator's life. He had the pedigree allowing him access to the aristocracy, but just enough to be invited to the right parties when someone else had canceled, and he didn't have money or good looks to make up for that lack. He has quite a memorable bit to say about being young and ugly.
You may have friends without number, but when it comes to romance you have nothing to bargain with, nothing to sell. You are not to be shown off and flaunted, you are the last resort when there's no one left worth dancing with. When you are kissed, you do not turn into a prince. You are just a kissed toad and usually the kisser regrets it in the morning.
The narrator felt this lack keenly, though he assumed those outside of the aristocracy, looking in, didn't see it. It's like that conversation in Good Will Hunting, where Professor Lambeau tells Will that only a handful of people can tell the difference between the two of them, but he himself is one of them. I guess feeling like a fraud (or more kindly, a visitor within the group you want to belong to) is not unusual. I love stories about people who live in the overlap between two worlds and don't fully belong in either.

Anyway, the quest for Baxter's child isn't the most compelling thread running through the book. It's the narrator's reliving of his past; going back to see people who made up the upper echelon of his social world, and seeing how much they've changed. For both him and Baxter, the social structure has upended itself. While people he'd envied or pined after were now trying to hold their lives together (financially or emotionally, depending on the individual), he was now a fairly successful writer, and Damian had of course blown them all out of the water with his fortune. But there's so much more to life than financial success, and as his father warns him near the beginning,
You've been made to go back into your own past and compare it with your present. You've been forced to remember what you wanted from life at nineteen, forty years ago, before you knew what life was.... Eventually, in old age, almost everyone with any brains must comes to terms with the disappointment of life, but this is very early for you to have to make that discovery. You've been rendered discontented when it's too late, or nearly too late, to fix, but soon enough for you to have many years ahead to live with that discontent.
Two other books where the narrator isn't named:

Old School by Tobias Wolff, set in a boys' prep school in the 1960s. Good stuff. Wish we'd read this in high school instead of A Separate Peace (John Knowles is dead, so, coward that I am, I will express a less-than-glowing opinion of his book on the internet).

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I actually set aside this post while trying to summon up the motivation to go back and skim this book in order to write a summary. I read a lot of stuff in high school I have no real interest in revisiting. Fortunately, Sarah Rees Brennan did a fortuitously timely (and hilarious) recap of it on her blog recently.

Other nameless narrators?

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