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Though I Dream In Vain
Michael Dibdin's Thanksgiving
John Banville's Eclipse

by Doug Childers

The protagonists of Michael Dibdin's Thanksgiving and John Banville's Eclipse are both ghost-haunted figures obsessed with the past, but the books' thematic underpinnings take them in dramatically different directions.

Anthony, the narrator of Michael Dibdin's powerfully addictive, fast-paced Thanksgiving, is (to put it briefly) obsessed with the past. His wife has recently died in a plane crash over the Pacific, and as the novel opens, he is driving through the Nevada desert to meet her first husband, Darryl Bob Allen (wonderful name, isn't it?). The fact that Anthony has just purchased a handgun and practiced with it in the desert doesn't bode well--for the first husband, at least. Most readers--grimly gleeful voyeurs, all of us--should find it an immensely appealing opening.

As it turns out, the gas station Darryl Bob owns is conveniently in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but his collection of giant neon signs as company:


Under that mass of meaningless lights, you now make out the familiar contours of a gas station with garage and diner attached. The concrete forecourt is cracked and crazed, the office roofless and gutted, the eatery boarded up. In every corner, the wind is busily hoarding dirt. The entire scene is bathed in the suffused light of countless red and white bulbs mounted in apparently random profusion on a painted hoarding attached to a metal tower some fifty feet high, heavily rusted and swaying alarmingly in the wind that moans as the structure troubles for an instant its passage through the enormous darkness.


And let's face it: Darryl Bob's the sort of guy a jealous second husband would love to kill, especially given the chance Anthony gets in the desert: burly, bearded and ponytailed, he may seem washed up now, but he can nonetheless turn your veins ice-cold with the promise of hoards of pornographic tapes and photos of--yes, you guessed it, the shared wife, some of them with other men, some of them with Anthony himself. Naturally, Darryl Bob has his favorites among the collection. He is, it seems, nursing his own obsession with the past and his ex-wife, and Anthony gets more than he bargained for when he hits Darryl Bob up for information. Darryl Bob, for his part, seems to enjoy watching Anthony squirm.

Michael Dibdin
208 pp.

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John Banville
Alfred A. Knopf
212 pp.

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'So how about it, Tone? Do you want to hear you and your late wife "doing the deed"? Like I say, it all sounds distinctly underwhelming to me. Lots of talk, but where's the meat? Still, I have high standards in these things. Maybe it'll be different for you. Might bring it all back, eh?'


Thanksgiving readers who are up on their Kubrick will probably find the novel's opening section with Darryl Bob reminiscent of the opening scene of Kubrick's Lolita adaptation: a jealous lover arrives at a rival's house with a handgun and soon finds he's losing control of the confrontation. But while Humbert Humbert does in fact shoot and kill Quilty, Anthony leaves Darryl Bob alive--indeed, he even sells Darryl Bob his gun. But once he makes it back home, Anthony finds himself confronted by a detective: Daryl Bob is dead by Anthony's gun, and its original purchase has been traced back to Anthony. Now, on top of his nostalgia, Anthony has a more pressing memory question: did he, in fact, murder Darryl Bob and block it out of his memory? It's not as farfetched as it might sound: his wife once told him he forgets the past because it scares him, and from the way he sounds in Thanksgiving, you can't disagree. Of course, since the dead wife's spirit (ghost?) begins appearing to Anthony after he's returned home, maybe he'll get to ask her for privileged insight.

Michael Dibdin has already established a sterling critical reputation as a mystery novelist (particularly with his Aurelio Zen series), and he brings to Thanksgiving (his first literary novel) the speed and efficiency of a no-nonsense mystery writer who understands how to let his story progress through quick, adept dialogue. Dibdin's pace is fast without seeming relentless, and the effect--cinematic, really--is whoppingly pleasurable. Thanksgiving isn't a particularly large book, but it's a mastery effort nonetheless, and it hopefully marks only the beginning of Dibdin's career as a literary novelist.


Did I mention our theme this month is ghost-plagued protagonists? The narrator of John Banville's Eclipse is--brace yourselves, everyone--haunted by ghosts of his own, but it's not clear who they are, precisely...or even if they're coming from the past.

Alexander Cleave is a fifty-year-old actor who breaks an acting contract in the midst of an existential crisis and, despite his wife's protests, moves into his dead mother's house "as a brief respite from life." The psychological underpinnings of the crisis are satisfyingly complicated, but it seems connected to his professional need to project various feigned selves before a paying audience while feeling too little self off the boards. It's worth mentioning, I suppose, that Cleave has recently experienced an horrific bout of frozen speechlessness on stage (another film parallel: Bergman's Persona), which he quite humorously describes thus:


There I am stuck, in my Theban general's costume, mouth open, mute as a fish, with the cast at a standstill around me, appalled and staring, like onlookers at the scene of a gruesome accident. From curtain-up everything had been going steadily awry. The theatre was hot, and in my breastplate and robe I felt as if I were bound in swaddling clothes. Sweat dimmed my sight and I seemed to be delivering my lines through a wetted gag. "Who if not I, then, is Amphitryon?" I cried--it is now for me the most poignant line in all drama--and suddenly everything shifted on to another plane and I was at once there and not there. It was like the state that survivors of heart attacks describe, I seemed to be onstage and at the same time looking down on myself from somewhere up in the flies. Nothing in the theatre is as horribly thrilling as the moment when an actor dries....I had not forgotten my lines--in fact, I could see them clearly before me, as if written on a prompt card--only I could not speak them....I turned about and with funereal tread, seeming to wade into the very boards of the stage, made a grave, unsteady exit, comically creaking and clanking in my armour. Already the curtain was coming down, I could feel it descending above my head, ponderous and solid as a portcullis. From the audience there were jeers now, and a scattering of half-heartedly sympathetic applause. In dimness backstage I had a sense of figures running to and fro. One of the actors behind me spoke my name in a furious stage whisper. With a yard or two still to go I lost my nerve entirely and made a sort of run for it and practically fell into the wings, while the gods' vast dark laughter shook the scenery around me.


By retreating to his childhood house, Cleave hopes to "catch myself, red-handed, in the act of living; alone, without an audience of any kind, I would cease from performing and simply be."

Naturally, Banville won't let it be that easy for him; the resident ghosts start appearing almost immediately, even before his wife has angrily stormed off. Soon, they appear regularly, though their forms remain obscure. A mother and child, perhaps? It wouldn't be surprising, Banville writes: the house is popularly believed to be haunted by a mother and child who died there. But Cleave isn't so sure, himself. They may be merely hallucinations, subconsciously sent to distance himself from the house. Whatever their source, they don't frighten him, though they don't help him, either. There is a literal eclipse in the novel, but Banville uses it metaphorically to describe all his afflicted characters--like Cleave, but there are others--who have fallen into an unexpected shadow of existential darkness. Celestial eclipses are passing, of course; the question remains whether Cleave's will be as well.

Banville's readers should feel an undeniably pressing need to 'solve' the mystery of Cleave's ghostly visions and see him through to a healing conclusion, but it's Banville's poetic stylings that really drive Eclipse so powerfully, I think. The care and precision Banville shows in word selection and even syllable counting suggests a poet's demand for compressed brilliance. Banville's writing often evokes T.S. Eliot--particularly early Eliot, as we see here (think especially of Preludes and Prufrock):


Last of evening in the window, dishwater light and the overgrown grass in the garden all grey. I wanted to say, I have lived amid surfaces too long, skated too well upon them; I require the shock of the icy water now, the icy deeps. Yet wasn't ice my trouble, that it had penetrated me, to the very marrow? A man thronged up with cold...Fire, rather; fire was what was needed...With a start I came back to myself, from myself. Quirke was nodding: someone must have said something of moment--Lord, I wondered, was it me?


Banville has written twelve books now to great critical acclaim, but widespread popular success has inexplicably eluded him. I don't know that Eclipse will change that; I can only say that I hope it will. He is truly one of the most sophisticated, subtle novelists working today, and it's nothing short of embarrassing to see the money going to the legal thrillers while the only works likely to survive the distance go sinfully underappreciated in their authors' prime.


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