Monday, November 24, 2008

Magic Mountain Lite

I love Andrea Barrett's short stories--I once, somewhat embarrassingly, spent part of a flight to Savannah weeping silently over a story about Linnaeus--but am less wild about her novels. I still like the way she writes about science and history but somehow over the course of an entire book things can start to feel a bit slack. And somehow her novels seem to have less weight than her short stories. I read The Voyage of the Narwhal a few years back and decided I would stick to her short stories. But I was going visiting and needed a book that hadn't been spending time in infestation central, so I picked up The Air We Breathe at the bookstore in Port Authority.

Of course, any book set among the patients of a sanatorium is going to have The Magic Mountain looming over it. Even more so if it's set right around the first world war. As interesting as the time period and location--the Adirondacks around the turn of the century--is to me, it seems like an author is setting herself up for failure with that, well, setting. And indeed, the novel does feel slight. 

In the novel Barrett acknowledges that The Magic Mountain was the initial inspiration:
At first I imagined a kind of low-rent, democratic version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. As the setting was transposed to America, so the rich patients would be transposed to impoverished immigrants in a public sanatorium. As The Magic Mountain takes place just before the outbreak of World War I in Europe, so I thought this might be set in analogous time, 1916 and 1917, just before the American entry into the war. But the initial conception changed a great deal, even before I started writing. 
That's an interesting concept. And what Barrett ends up exploring--the ways in which feeling threatened creates a kind of xenophobic group think whether that threat is disease or war--is also something that interests me. But the problem is that she can't really get away from The Magic Mountain and that serves to highlight the fact that she doesn't delve deeply enough into the characters or the social setting. No one is any more fleshed out than they would be in one of her short stories and most of the characters actually feel less fully realized. 

I had no trouble getting through the book and even enjoyed it while I was reading it, but in the end, The Air We Breathe is about as shallow as a swimming pool and that's too bad because it should have been a better novel.

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