Thursday, November 29, 2012

What We're Reading: Madame Butterfly II

The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain

Here’s a timely fiction debut that may be of interest to our patrons who attended the recent talk on Madame Butterfly or who might have gone to the L.A. Opera production of the Puccini opera. Rain’s novel is an imaginative tale of the life of the son of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly, the young boy who appears briefly in the opera. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton II, known to his intimates as “Trouble,” becomes a lifelong friend of the young narrator of this novel, Woodley Sharpless, when they meet at boarding school. Those familiar with the opera will know that the fathers of the two boys were acquainted when Sharpless’s father served as an American consul in Nagasaki. Trouble’s father has become a prominent United States senator, and the plot of the book explores both the domestic drama of Trouble’s life in America and the major historical events of the 20th Century, including the penultimate event of the novel, America’s dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other characters in the Puccini opera make cameo appearances as the story of Trouble’s conflicted and tumultuous life unfolds.

There is a certain amount of energy in this novel that comes from the dynamic valence of the relationship between Woodley Sharpless and Trouble. Sharpless has a homosexual attraction to the charismatic “bad boy,” an attraction that may or may not have been mutual--it is difficult to say (the novel drops hints but for the most part is evasive). Conspicuous by its absence is any female relationship in the life of Sharpless, Trouble, or Sharpless’s other friend from boarding school who plays a supporting role in the novel. Another significant tension in the novel is created by the author’s need to pretend (while creating his story) that the Puccini opera had never been written, a necessity born of the fact that the principal characters must be presented as “real” to us, and to themselves, in the novel. It is difficult to say exactly how this impacts the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, the degree to which we can pretend that the history of the characters here is real however much they are rather deliberately attached and anchored to what we know to be actual historical events. Whatever else the conundrum does, it seems to land you into a front row seat at this entertainment.

The ambition here seems to be to transpose into a prose medium the signature tropes and sensibilities of opera, and indeed Rain uses the terms like “overture” and “act” for some of his sections. But the plot developments and action are what makes this narrative truly operatic. The melodramatic elements are in riot: histrionic scenes, feints and frisson, improbable chance encounters, the elevated language of dramatic dialogue, settings that have the feel of fantastic and glimmering stage scenery, violent apparent deaths that we are never quite sure are final, and the casually noted and incidental murder of minor characters, á la the demise of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If that were not enough to keep things boiling, several scenes that allude to Greek tragedy are thrown into the mix. It seems indeed possible that those who have been born with an operatic sensibility (and you have to be born with one; it doesn’t seem to be an acquired taste) will find the performance mesmerizing.

Most of the reviews have been good. Those of us with less fancy for opera may come off the ride a little queasy and confused. It is hard to understand what motivates some of the characters here, and those of us of a more literary bent may find that troubling. But perhaps more critically, an opera has meaning for us mostly because we are convinced not of the plausibility of its plot but of the truth of its feeling. That feeling comes through the music, and of course that is the essential element that cannot be brought into a work of prose. It leaves you with a sense that what has happened in this novel is imagined but not felt.

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