Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The British empire may have died, but its death spasms continue. Fellowes has gotten famous, so I understand, from Downton Abbey – which I have not managed to see – and I thought reading this might give me some flavor of what people seem to admire so much about it.

On the plus side, this is often ‘sumptuous,’ a word I associate with Downton Abbey. We get long descriptions about the lives of assorted aristocrats, their homes, and their hopes. At its best, Fellowes gives nice, insightful portraits of individuals. At its worst, it runs on, tending toward what I might call a pornography of upper class life – descriptions that acknowledge the banality of the whole crowd but that go on to detail their whims and hungers with lingering attention.

All of that is generally what I signed up for: a 21st century English novel of manners. What really disappoints me, though, is the clumsiness of the narrative here. Fellowes can certainly write at the sentence level, but the whole of this feels almost amateurish in its organization.

At an architectural level, this is a Gatsby rewrite. Our narrator is a man of “the crowd,” but he’s on the outskirts of it. Through him, an arriviste pushes his way in, falls in love with a young woman, and then finds he cannot after all reinvent his background sufficiently to win her.

As we get the story, though, it’s presented through the organization of a mystery novel – a staged and dated variation of the old locked-room mystery. The dying Damian tells us that he understands he sired a child on one of his many mistresses of a couple decades before, and he wants to know which woman is the mother. Of course he has a list of all the women he slept with, and, of course, our protagonist/narrator proceeds from one ‘suspect’ to the next.

The organization that follows is so straightforward as to be embarrassing. We get a section dedicated to each – with her name on it in all but the final case – then we get a chapter on life ‘back then’ and a chapter on the present-day ‘interrogation.’ The skill of the sentences obscures the real hack-work underneath. Why, for instance, would one woman confide that she ‘bought’ her child to fake a pregnancy that would force a man to marry her? It’s a story she’s never told anyone, and there’s no conceivable motivation for sharing it when she does; it’s just convenient to the arc of the story as we get it. When he needs an answer to move onto the next chapter, he gets it. And why does each chapter reach a ‘climax’ in which it seems the child in question might be the one…only to have the possibility eliminated by one or another last-second reveal? Again, narrative convenience.

Throughout the novel, we’re teased with the idea of “Portugal,” a final and too-embarrassing-to-speak-of scene that, predictably, we get described near the very end. [SPOILER] So, Damian loses his temper and tells all the upper-class twits off. And he’s an asshole to our narrator. By that point in the novel, our narrator’s more or less forgiven him. It’s not that big a deal, yet it carries the weight of concluding that part of our narrator’s life…even though he admits he remained in contact with his old set over the following decades.

And then there’s a ‘twist’ at the end that’s really frustrating because it violates the spirit of the ‘mystery’ as we’ve gotten it. Someone on the list shouldn’t have been there and vice-versa and, guess what? The most obvious person of all is the one. Fellowes gets to express his contempt for the excesses of the aristocracy – he shows us his appreciation for the common sort after all -- but the wealthy get wealthier, and a sliver of the fine old caste system persists.

I’m probably being harder on this than I should be. I did finish it, after all, and one of its clear sins is its length. Still, I’d heard such good things about Downton Abbey that I have time believing Fellowes had much to do with shaping the way those stories came together.

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