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Téa Obreht Reinvents the Western Novel — and Brings Camels

By Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht burst onto the literary scene in 2011 with her dazzling debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” which went on to become a best seller and won the Orange Prize. “Inland,” her highly anticipated follow-up, is a dense historical novel set in the mid-to-late-19th-century American West that moves between two perspectives: one belonging to Nora, a tenacious frontierswoman and mother of three sons, who is often impatient with those around her and hardened by an arduous life in the harsh Arizona Territory, and the other to Lurie, an immigrant and wanted man who can see the dead and is always on the move. These two extraordinary characters navigate the dangers of the frontier, driven at times by literal thirst and haunted by a more intangible want. Though they lead disparate lives that will eventually intersect, they both know how unforgiving, indifferent and beautiful the land can be, and how quickly death can interrupt the narrative. Their world is one of extremes, of boomtowns and massacres, of the wonder of railroads and the telephone, but the threat of death is a constant companion.

Lurie’s sections, which span nearly his entire life, start at age 6, when he emigrated with his father from Ottoman Herzegovina to New York. Like most early memories, these beginnings are fragmented and elusive, possibly misunderstood, and because Lurie is soon orphaned there is no one to explain to him where he comes from. Untethered, his is a rambling childhood during which a fascinating encounter with the dead infects him with a “strange feeling of want.” Unlike Nora, Lurie never questions the authenticity of the supernatural, and indeed, it stakes a claim in him. Soon after Lurie is sent out West, he falls in with two brothers and becomes an outlaw. The desires of the dead and a dogged marshal will pursue him throughout the novel, making it impossible for him to put down roots.

On the run, Lurie ends up in Indianola, Tex., fittingly a ghost town today, but at the time a bustling port second only to Galveston. It is here that he comes across the United States Army Camel Corps and several colorful true-life figures, including the Syrian-Turk camel driver Hadji Ali, nicknamed Hi Jolly. As Lurie steps into this delightfully odd, little-known slice of American history, his narrative is at its most compelling thanks to the intimacy that Obreht creates with Jolly and his band of outsiders. For Lurie, they are a kind of home.

In contrast to the long arc of Lurie’s life story, Obreht stretches Nora’s narrative in Arizona Territory over roughly 24 hours. Though Nora has long been used to a life of hardship, her present circumstances are overwhelming: She is ravenously thirsty and her husband is three days late returning with their water supply; her two older sons are absent after a charged argument with her the night before; and her township is under pressure from the local “Cattle King” to cede its place as the county seat, which would likely force the family to give up their homestead and settle elsewhere. But the novel does not cast Nora as a vulnerable woman on the edge of the frontier abandoned by her menfolk. Rather, she must protect not only the remaining family members in her charge but the men who are missing.

At 37, Nora is middle-aged for the late 19th century, and there is a palpable weariness as she begins to question former certainties, from her relationship with her husband to whether life as a homesteader is worth the grief and toil. Nora can be harsh and unyielding, and we may wish her to be kinder to those who need her (especially Josie, her husband’s clairvoyant young cousin), but with each new section we see how the seclusion and constant risks of frontier life have hardened her. Nora’s sections keep the reader on edge. We don’t know how she’ll find a way out of her mounting troubles or what she might encounter when she does. There is only the deepening sense that something is badly awry.

Obreht is at her most captivating when she reveals Nora’s innermost thoughts, especially those she hesitates to acknowledge on the edges of her consciousness. Nora’s ongoing dialogue with her long-dead daughter could be imagined or real, and her relationship with the town’s sheriff, Harlan Bell, may be innocent, simply intensified by her loneliness and isolation — just as, given the uncertain physical dangers that surround her, a shadow could be a passing steer or a rider come to kill them all. Still, her daughter’s voice and Harlan’s presence fill her with longing and guilt.

As it should be, the landscape of the West itself is a character, thrillingly rendered throughout in phrases such as “red boil of twilight” and “a stillness so vast the small music of the grasses could not rise to fill it.” Here, Obreht’s simple but rich prose captures and luxuriates in the West’s beauty and sudden menace. Remarkable in a novel with such a sprawling cast, Obreht also has a poetic touch for writing intricate and precise character descriptions. Lurie’s father is a “hard-laboring man who never caught more rest than he did that swaying month when night and day went undiffered.” Another minor character’s “God-given eloquence was buttressed on all sides by charms he’d cultivated throughout a long life of asking forgiveness for assorted transgressions about which he was alternately boastful and ashamed.” “Inland” has the stoic heroic characters and the requisite brutal violence of the Western genre, but the decision to place an immigrant and a middle-aged mother at its center is a welcome deviation.

There are a few places in the novel where readers might struggle to pinpoint the present moment of the story. Perhaps this is because in the toggling back and forth between Lurie’s and Nora’s perspectives, there are quite a few characters with complex circumstances to keep track of. Or it could be because a good chunk of Nora’s predicament is revealed slowly, through flashbacks; these work well when the complications are secrets Nora is reluctant to share with herself, but less successfully when back story follows back story. Obreht is always skillful in her delivery of this pivotal information, but it is a formal technique that sometimes diminishes the urgency of the novel’s forward motion.

The history of the American West is one of violent colonization and anti-government sentiment, self-reliance and self-invention in a land of extremes. Justice is dispensed by men who were once outlaws, and may yet be outlaws again. Boundaries are blurred, maps are changing. In Obreht’s hands, this is an era that overflows with what the dead want, and with wants that lead to death. Her two central characters may not be who we have been conditioned to think of when we conjure the old American West, but they too are America.

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