Monday, July 21, 2008

Two books with trees in the title

This seems to be my week for tree books--entirely by coincidence I found myself picking up Mary Swan's novel The Boys In The Trees and Barbara Bosworth's large-format photography book Trees: National Champions at the same time. So here's a dual review.

I picked up the Swan book because of a blurb--from Alice Munro. I generally don't have much confidence in blurbs, but Munro is such a selective blurbist, and the official W6 Favorite Writer, and I figured how could I go wrong?

Hmm. Well, let me first say that The Boys In The Trees is a work of great integrity, artful restraint, and emotional depth. On the sentence level, it's superb, and I might well check out Swan's other book, a collection of stories. However, this novel is also one of the most maddening things I've ever read. Its point of view switches at random; sometimes it's in the first person and sometimes it's in the third; sometimes it's in past tense and sometimes it's in the present. Some of it takes place a really long time ago, some a somewhat long time ago, some not so long ago. There is literally no narrative momentum at all--events are all jumbled up in time, and sentences that indicate suspense turn out to be red herrings. Several times, some important memory is just out of reach...or a character realizes something's not quite right but can't recall what...and then the moment passes and you never find out what they mean.

The book is about a family that is decimated first by illness, then by violence; most of it focuses on the lives of people who come in contact with this family. The mission of the novel at first seems to be to figure out why it all happened--but that doesn't really pan out, in the end. Every little subplot is cut short. Characters appear and disappear without rhyme or reason, and every character dies miserable or lives a long life of profound loneliness. Because of this detachment from context, the novel is packed with passages that come off as hopelessly vague:

He knew Marianne's dilemma, could almost see the thoughts chasing round in her head as they faced each other across the table, knives in their hands. How much she wanted to know, wrestling with how she hated to need anything from him, even news. There were times he played with that, but just then he didn't have the heart for it. He told her how it had been and she said, Good.

I had to read that again and again and again, trying to figure out what each pronoun was referring to.

It's tempting to suggested that Swan just doesn't know how the hell to write a novel. But the book, as I said, has a certain integrity, and feels as though it is exactly as the author intended. For my part, I think it reads like a collection of notes in search of a story. I think Munro likes it because it has the quality of found material--the kind of stuff she probably reads all the time while researching her beautiful pieces of historical fiction. The reader has to do a lot of work to enjoy it. I did the work, and I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure the effort was worth it, for me.

Barbara Bosworth is a photographer best known for her large-format photos of outdoor subjects. Rhian, Ed and I knew her during her brief stay in Montana, where she staged a wonderful exhibition, at the museum where I worked, of pictures of hunters posing with their prey. Trees: National Champions is the result of a project spanning more than a decade, in which Bosworth traveled around the country taking pictures of the largest known tree of a number of species. Many of the photos are arranged in diptychs or triptychs, giving a panoramic view of tree's surroundings--some beautiful, some pedestrian. Large-format photos capture amazing amounts of detail, and this is evident even in book format (it's a big but not enormous coffee-table hardcover).

I have a postcard of a stunning Bosworth photo--a triptych of a mountain scene. Bosworth's late husband is in the first frame; she herself is in the second--and the second was taken after the husband's death. Nevertheless it appears to have been created all at once, suffusing the image with profound sadness and a hint of the supernatural. These tree photos also have a bit of this feeling about them; the multiple frames were invariably taken minutes apart, and so the scenes are inherently displaced in time. In at least one, you can see Bosworth's dog in two of the frames.

There are a lot of essays in the book, but none are by Barbara, unfortunately. I would have liked to hear more about her methodology and philosophy, which from meeting her I know are fascinating. Still, that's what Google's for. If you live in the southwest, and want to check out her current work, she has a show up at the Phoenix Art Museum, through July 27.


AC said...

I've been checking out some of the tree photos online, and I think I'm going to have to get this book. I love trees and I've been trying to find good ways to photograph them ever since I was a kid. Unfortunately, the things I love about trees are up close (like the sense of enclosure and openness at the same time that you get when you are close to the trunk and looking out at the world through the branches). Aren't there supposed to be very big trees in the Zoar Valley? Maybe not "national champion" status trees, but close? I want to visit, but unfortunately every reminder I get about the Zoar Valley seems to come in the form of a news report saying another hiker has drowned there or fallen over a cliff. I'm holding out for a good map.

Anonymous said...

Hell, I don't even know where the Zoar Valley is! I like taking pictures of trees, but mostly the ones visible from my porch. We have quite the killer catalpa, even if it does keep shedding branches onto our car.

One of the most interesting things about this book is how innocuous many of the champions look--some are dwarfed by the much larger, but average-for-their-species--tress that surround them.