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Blue River ()

Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

I suppose this seriously flawed novel was inevitable.  For his first novel, Canin takes most of the themes and many of the quirky details from his story collection, Emperor of the Air, and hammers them into a tale of two brothers which displays all of the same strengths and weaknesses that the stories did.  Once again, we see that Canin has the makings of a terrific writer.  But, once again we are given characters with deformities or odd medical ailments (Canin is a Doctor), asked to believe that people are continually having sudden life changing epiphanies and exposed to Canin's really disturbing vision of humans in general and families in specific--his malevolent portraits of all religious believers are particularly disgusting, but in addition fathers are always leaving Canin's families and he trots out his canard about how sons are inescapably moral clones of their fathers & here expands it to brothers being identical.  Having repeated these themes so often, there must be some element of autobiography here & it makes you wonder about his mental health.

One structural weakness is new.  The bulk of the book consists of one brother addressing another and recounting the events of their boyhood, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it in his Times review:

    This literary device, formally known as apostrophe, bears no resemblance to any realistic way
    of addressing someone. One might use it accusatorily:  "You so-and-so. You did such-and-such
    to me. It was your unconscious way of putting me down." But to write as if the addressee doesn't
    know how he used to put on his shirt or doesn't remember the women he slept with is so unnatural
    as to undermine the novel's best effects. In an age when books have to compete with such a
    powerful storytelling media as film and videotape, writers can't afford to dally with such flimsy
    narrative contrivances.

You'd really have to read the book to appreciate how annoying and artificial this narrative device becomes.

But the books greatest weakness, one it shares with any number of recent novels (Snow Falling on Cedars and While I Was Gone spring to mind), is the flaccidity of the moral dilemma that lies at its core.  The narrator of the novel is tormented by feelings of guilt.  The soliloquies apologizing for enjoying a comfortable life as a doctor trigger an overwhelming desire to see him horsewhipped.  But as the story progresses we discover that the guilt is rooted in a "betrayal" of his brother.  This is a betrayal in Canin's mind, but it is, in fact, roughly equivalent to the action of the Unabomber's brother.  The brother, you see, is a sociopath.  Oh sure, the narrator's motives are suspect, but c'mon, he exposed a serial arsonist for chrissakes.

I was prepared to forgive many of these problems in his short story collection, but to repeat them here seems unforgivable.  Hopefully, with this novel out of his system, Mr. Canin will move on to some new themes and will abandon the family, which he seems singularly unsuited to write about.


Grade: (D)


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)