Saturday, July 03, 2010

Serena by Ron Rash

This book was recommended to me a while ago, but I couldn't get hold of a copy in the UK. I picked one up when I was in San Francisco a few weeks back and have just finished it.

Serena is certainly an ambitious novel. And certainly, in its eponymous anti-heroine, Ron Rash has overcome the weakness I felt affected his previous novel, Saints at the River, that it was all a little too pat, too straightforward, too nice. This is not a straightforward novel, nor is there anything nice about it. Rather, evil infests it, and a hopeless fatalism but also, ultimately, tremendous, selfless bravery.

Serena is Lady Macbeth transplanted into Depression-era North Carolina (with the one exception that Lady Macbeth ultimately displayed a sense of guilt – “out damn spot,” which Serena never does). We are introduced to this malign character in an extraordinary opening which I suspect will be much quoted over the years:

When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.

Oh dear, you think. The poor wife, brought all this way into the country and widowed within five minutes of stepping off the train, with the added horror of discovering that her husband had been a philandering playboy. It’s going to be a novel of hardship, then, with this plucky woman surviving against the odds, gradually gaining the respect of the locals, probably finding love anew with the gruff old backwoodsman who formerly made her life so miserable, settling down with a strapping family of young men and a token girl to do the housework. So far, so Hollywood. But no, Serena is not Hollywood.

Serena faces down the angry father. Whatever her husband did before she met him is no concern of hers, she says; the pregnant girl, Rachel, was lucky to have such a sire to breed with, but she has no further hold over him. Then, not so much encouraged by his wife as instructed ("Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton,”) Pemberton kills the father. Serena removes the knife from his stomach and gives it to Rachel, telling her it is the only thing she will ever receive from the Pembertons. And so the tone is set. The Pembertons are a frighteningly intense couple, ruthless, ambitious, deadly. And it is Serena who is the driving force.

Together, they set about establishing a lumber empire with the intent of raping the Smoky Mountains, stripping it completely bare of its forests. Serena obtains and trains a deadly eagle to control the rattlesnakes that regularly attack their workforce. Her concern, of course, is not for the men’s welfare, but purely their productivity and hence the profit that can be derived from their investment. Thus, the Pembertons drive their workers to the limit. Many of them die, but this is the Great Depression and they are easily replaceable. And these early, accidental deaths presage something much darker. The Pembertons negotiate to buy further tracts of land, competing against those who would seek to turn the Smokies into a national park, and gradually those negotiations, whenever they threaten to frustrate their ambitions, turn to violence. There is death at every turn in Serena, and Serena is behind most of it. She is evil personified.

The novel is more than just a character study of evil, however. If it were, then character would be everything and plot would be a subsidiary element, fulfilling only the role of developing the character. But, in Serena, Rash is clearly intent on exploring the tensions that have always existed between conservationists and development. He also addressed this theme in Saints At The River, but rather less successfully. In Serena, he goes back in time to the 1920s and 1930s, when the debate over the future of the Smokies was at its height. Ultimately, Theodore Roosevelt’s financial intervention saved the day by helping to create the Smoky Mountain National Park, but previously there had been considerable dispute, and great swathes of the area had already been cleared by the end of the 1930s. In Serena, the Pemberton’s aim is to extract every dollar out of their investment in North Carolina, as quickly as possible, with no regard to what is left behind, and then move on to Brazil where the giant mahogany forests offer even greater prospects – and profits. One character surveys the degradation left in their wake: “I think this is what the end of the world will look like,” he says quietly.

Stylistically, Serena is ambitious. It can be read – very successfully – on the level of gothic novel, with Serena a particularly nasty villain. And, as discussed, Rash is clearly also exploring the vexed question of conservation. It is also, however, a boldly literary novel, even experimental at times. It is important to understand this because it does explain what otherwise might seem like serious weaknesses in the plot. In particular, some of the early dialogue between Serena and Pemberton sounds extremely clunky, with huge chunks of exposition and the characters saying things to each other that a married couple would already have known and would not have felt the need to say. This is a classic beginners’ fault, of course, using dialogue to tell the reader the backstory, but Rash is no beginner, so there is clearly something else at work.

In structure, Rash treats his novel as a cross between an Elizabethan drama, a form which he is on record as greatly admiring and a Greek tragedy. Thus, we have a shape to the novel which is reminiscent of Shakespeare, along with the Lady Macbeth-like examination of power and corruption and greed and the evil that exists in the world. It is here that the dialogue between husband and wife comes in: as a twenty-first century novel it may sound stilted, but as Elizabethan dialogue it makes perfect sense. This is how we must consider it, then. And, most ambitiously of all, Rash intersperses his narrative with a a classically Greek Chorus of outsiders, who observe the action, explain it, weigh it, making their wry, often extremely funny observations on the machinations around them. It works extremely well and once the reader becomes accustomed to these occasional digressions into external observation, they become an integral part of the novel’s charm. It is a bold melding of forms and, broadly, it works.

One could argue that the character of Serena is one-note. She is evil from the first page to the last, without even Lady Macbeth’s final remorse to offer a humanising element. In purely literary terms, that would be argued to be a mistake, but the fact remains that there are people like that in this world. Simply because the (current) conventions of the novel suggest there must be some degree of character movement doesn’t mean that a great writer should accede to such limitations of his vision. Rash sticks to his guns: Serena is a study of how far evil can go if it remains undiluted by human sensibilities. She finally finds her husband, immoral though he is, to be unworthy of the purity of her vision. She wants a mirror of herself, someone for whom nothing exists except the principle, whatever that principle might be, someone who sees what must be done and does it without question, someone for whom murder is an occupational hazard, for whom human sympathy is an alien concept.

Step forward Anton Chigurh, your dream date awaits you.


Ken Hannahs said...

Just wanted to let you know that I bought this book after reading the review. I can't believe I haven't heard of Ron Rash before -- wonderful writer... but he CANNOT read his own work. I must wait a month until his cardboard cut-out Ozark drawl does not infest my inner-ear anymore. Thanks for the wonderful write-up.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Ken, sorry to be so long replying. I'm just clearing out my email box and came across this. I forgot to reply at the time.

Glad you've bought the Rash. Hope you enjoyed it. He's a very fine writer.

thanks again