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The Palace Thief ()

Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

Okay, it's official, having alternatively very mildly liked (see review) and mildly disliked (see review) two earlier books, after reading this one I can honestly say that I hate Ethan Canin's writing.  The problem with this set of excruciating stories is threefold:

First, there is not a single likable character in the whole book.  In fact, you end up rooting for the really bad guys because at least there's a chance that they'll do something horrible to the merely annoying narrators;

Second, the stories simply do not seem believable.  Senate candidates restaging High School contests with the willing participation of their rivals, boy geniuses with girlfriends secretly living in their basements, I mean c'mon...

Third, Canin is that worst of all modern creatures, a man bereft of any moral sense.  Thus, characters can obsess over minor incidents but be completely oblivious to gigantic moral failings, because Canin himself has no apparent sense of right and wrong.

And as if I hadn't started to dislike him enough already, I found a couple of articles where he weighed in on the Clinton Scandals that are truly infuriating.  Here is his view:

    Character to me is not synonymous with adherence to a code of conduct. On the contrary, character
    in the current case has everything to do with being what is called in Yiddish a mensch -- roughly
    translated, a man , in the best sense of the word.

    Ken Starr's zealous and chillingly unambiguous morality, on the other hand, suggest to me none of
    the fullness, none of the complex interplay and recognition of opposing forces that interest the
    intelligent mind. And this, in fiction, is called flat character. If Bill Clinton and Ken Starr were
    characters in one of my students' stories, the class would agree that it is Mr. Starr, not Mr. Clinton,
    who lacks character.

He concludes that Clinton's behavior:

    reveals an openness of spirit and a fullness of experience . . . that allows him to embrace high
    ideals and at the same time to permit trespasses against convention.

Now I don't think that every author has to be a Safire-esque word maven, but working with words, as they do,  they should at least recognize that their meanings are important.  Here is how Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines character in the sense he's first using it:  "moral excellence and firmness" and here's "mensch":

               Main Entry: mensch
               Pronunciation: 'men(t)sh
               Function: noun
               Etymology: Yiddish mentsh human being, from Middle High German mensch,
               from Old High German mennisco; akin to Old English man human being, man
               Date: 1953
               : a person of integrity and honor

Even Bill Clinton's political fellow travelers have to acknowledge that no one believes him to be a man of moral excellence, integrity or honor.  As to the comparison of Clinton and Starr as fictional characters, one presumes he is now referring to this definition of character:  "a person marked by notable or conspicuous traits <quite a character>."  I'll readily concede that in a novel the Clinton character would be more interesting than the Starr character--would that Bill Clinton were only a fictional character.  The real question is whether a man with no moral character is tolerable as president because he's an amusing character.  The fact that Canin does not even understand the difference speaks volumes about the kind of writer he is, and likely what kind of person.

In a sense, the absence of any core values does make for tension in Canin's stories.  Since his people have no internal compass to steer by, they seem capable of anything.  But this is hardly a worthwhile substitute for the drama readers experience in the work of other (better) authors when a person of conscience must make a hard choice between what is right, but inconvenient, and what is expedient, though wrong.  Interestingly, Canin's stories depend on precisely the type of false suspense that accompanies sociopaths like Bill Clinton, that feeling that their behavior is unpredictable because they simply do not feel bound by the moral precepts that guide the rest of us.  Thus, in the first story, "Accountant", when the narrator solemnly speaks of his crime, it could be anything from jaywalking to child molesting.  We have no means of measuring his seriousness because Canin has no language or aptitude for conveying gradations of sin.

One of the fundamental problems with Canin's kind of moral relativism is that his stories, like most short stories, depend on dramatic epiphanies, but--pretty much by definition--if all is relative, the moments and events of revelation which he chooses are unlikely to have the effect on us that he desires.  So in the title story, "The Palace Thief", he builds to the moment when the sort of morose Mr. Chips finally allows a powerful former student to involve him fully in his public dishonesty.  But Canin fails to understand that he lost most of his readers thirty pages earlier when the teacher first allowed this student to defraud his competitors in a school contest.  When Canin breathlessly whips the curtain away in the finale, to reveal how much the teacher is willing to be morally compromised, he apparently assumes that we've all understood and sympathized with the entire series of compromises the teacher's made along the way--after all, and let's make sure I have this right, up until then the teacher has merely been displaying (as he said of Clinton): "an openness of spirit and a fullness of experience . . . that allows him to embrace high ideals and at the same time to permit trespasses against convention."  You see once you start turning a blind eye to immorality it's awfully hard to determine when the eye needs to open again.  Why aren't these moments of climax merely instances of the author's "openness" failing and illustrations of the same kind of "unambiguous morality" that he finds so repellent in Ken Starr?

There is genuine evil at work in fiction like this and in people like Ethan Canin.  They think they are being so worldly and sophisticated when they reject conventional morality, but then they are left imposing moral judgments that are purely personal and completely contradict their own prior ethos of permissiveness.     The great power of traditional moral standards is that they apply universally, to everyone in society, the weak and the strong.  Canin's kind of personal morality virtually guarantees that there will be different standards applied to citizens depending on their social standing and the most powerful members of society will get away with pretty much anything.  For example, if you were a powerful enough individual in the society that Canin envisions, you could commit perjury, obstruct justice, maybe even rape someone, and your cronies in this elevated social strata would still spring to your defense and argue that anyone who opposes your actions is merely a Puritanical prisoner of an outmoded morality.  You might even get away with it.

Charlie Herzog's Review:
Can't say that I read the current political parallel into these stories the way you did, but my fundamental reaction to them was similar to yours.  There is not one character in any of the four stories that is remotely sympathetic!  You want to beat the accountant at the baseball camp with a club, hope the homosexuals never come up for air in the swimming pool scene, wish that that a pack of dogs would tear the teacher limb from limb.

I read the blurb on Amazon that said these were stories of "ordinary people whose lives have taken a surprising turn."  Surprising turn I'll give you, which is what we get in the Simpsons.  Ordinary people?   I can't remember meeting anyone as hateful as this collection of characters.

It's too bad his stories end up being so hateful, as his writing style is excellent.  That said, I won't be picking up his other books anytime soon.



Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Carry Me Across the Water
    -REVIEW: of  ME AND MY BABY VIEW THE ECLIPSE By Lee Smith (Ethan Canin, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Ethan Canin Discusses Writing and Medicine (ROGER COHEN, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Ethan Canin and the Pulse of the Known (Nicholas A. Basbanes, LitKit)
    -INTERVIEW: How did Your Life Turn Out?  An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being (The Atlantic)
    -PROFILE: 27-Year-Old Author Bemused by Success (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Intelligentsia Bankrupt (James K. Glassman, Intellectual Capital)
    -ESSAY: For Democrats, A Defining Moment (Michael Powell, Washington Post)
    -Random gossip:  Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Cheever ... Canin! (At Random Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of THE PALACE THIEF By Ethan Canin (Abby Frucht, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Palace Thief By Ethan Canin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Palace Thief THE UNDECLARED WARS OF MEN Ethan Canin's fine stories plumb the search for male identity (CHARLES MICHENER, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of FOR KINGS AND PLANETS By Ethan Canin (Rand Richards Cooper, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVEW: of FOR KINGS AND PLANETS By Ethan Canin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of For Kings and Planets (Alan Gottlieb, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of For Kings...  Ethan Canin novel's hero wins quietly (LINDSAY HEINSEN, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of For Kings... (ELIZABETH JUDD, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of For Kings and Planets (DEREK WEILER, Eye)
    -REVIEW: of For Kings... (Randall Curb, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of BLUE RIVER By Ethan Canin (Ginger Danto, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Blue River By Ethan Canin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of EMPEROR OF THE AIR By Ethan Canin (David Leavitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of EMPEROR OF THE AIR. By Ethan Canin (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEWS: Canin, Ethan  Annotated Works   Batorsag and Szerelem &  We Are Nighttime Travelers (Medical Humanities, NYU)
    -REVIEW : of Carry Me Across the Water  By ETHAN CANIN (GARY KRIST, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Carry Me Across the Water By Ethan Canin (DANIEL MENDELSOHN, New York)