Monday, January 31, 2011

Empire Falls - Family secrets/small town life/burden of being ostracized

Some initial thoughts first up. Each or rather most families have some secrets and by this I do not just mean any criminal acts committed earlier or some earth shattering information that has been hidden. Rather these could be of no interest to others outside the immediate family except as gossip and such important to the family only. But these things are not discussed in most cases even among the family members. It is either consciously or sub-consciously repressed by them. Similarly life in a small town has it's own advantages and disadvantages. For e.g. you know most of the people at least by name and feel secure, but in such an environment there is not much possibility of privacy, which in turn could make each family suppress information that they think need not come out. The people in such towns could be grouped into 2 major groups, one who have left the place for elsewhere and others who have stayed there, either because they like it or simply because they are afraid of change and would rather suffer in their hometown than go towards the unknown, however inviting it may be. Primary/High school is generally remembered by most of us nostalgically as being the best part of our lives. But it is not the case with several seizable percentage of students. For them, the whole experience and remembrance of school  is one long period of nightmare and hell. These are students who are ostracized by their peers, just because they do not conform to the normal societal standards. It could be because they are poor, they are not good at sports, not good at articulating what they fell or just about anything else that the majority of students view as being weird. Children are not as innocent as they are made to be, the violence and cruelty exhibited by kids is something that most adults turn a blind eye to, not wanting to believe it. These Richard Russo's 'Empire Falls' is a novel that has the above issues as its main threads as it looks at the life of people in a fictional small town in America called 'Empire Falls'.

Empire Falls is a town that was once full of life with several mills,factories and which now have full into disuse. The town is now a skeleton of the one that existed decades ago. As mentioned earlier, most of the people still living here are mostly bound by their own fears of the unknown elsewhere in the country and prefer to stay put. Few stay here because they like it or have a sentimental attachment to the place they were born and brought up. The main characters in the novel are Miles a forty something man who looks after the restaurant 'Empire Grille', his wife who has divorced him after having an affair with a fitness instructor who is called 'Silver Fox', Miles teenage daughter Tick, Miles father who is a sponger living of others, Miles brother, 'Francine Whiting' who is the heiress of the Whiting family which owns most of Empire Falls and who is presiding over an crumbling empire. There are other characters whose life intersect with the ones mentioned above. 

The impact that religion (any religion) has on the moral attitudes of some persons and the manner in which it actually results in the person being unhappy and being held back always is one aspect which I liked. Miles is one such person. His moral upbringing, makes it difficult for him to say no to most people, since he feels that he has a moral obligation to help others. So he accepts what others say, even though he does not like it and knows that others are using for their ends. Then he becomes upset that he is doing something that he does not like and then again upset because it is wrong to be upset about doing something that is morally right to do. The cycle goes on and on it never ends right? Finally Miles ends up living others lives and what does he get in return, many people look at him as a wimp, loser including his own wife. Most people grow out of the moral upbringing, realizing that real life does not in any way look anything like what religion says it should be and would be, but there are still people like Miles stuck with it.

The best thing about this novel is the way it unfolds as we read it. After the first two-three chapters, when most of the characters are introduced, the reader could form a basic opinion on them. For e.g Miles could be seen as a loser, his wife as someone without any morality, his father as a sponger and Mrs.Whiting as a heartless calculating woman who strings everyone on a leash. But as we read through the novel, the characters evolve becoming fully three dimensional ones instead of being cardboard cut characters. We get to know more about them from their POV which though is obviously biased, which gives us a different perspective of why these people do what they do.  Of course, it does not make them all pure and saintly, but makes them more real and some one to whom we can relate.  Russo is an excellent story teller of the old world school and does not use any crazy narrative gimmicks to embellish his tale, other than the normal device of going back and forth in time and interspersing current events with what happened decades ago. Even with the current events, he splits up what transpires with the characters with reader getting to know about one character, then it is left for a while, as Russo shows us vignettes from another character's life. This actually enhances the readers involvement in the novel as he now gets in a hurry to understand/know what would happen. It can actually be a bit frustrating at times, but that is only due to the normal curiosity all of us have to know everything immediately. Russo keeps stringing us nicely, just making sure that the reader does not get irritated to snap of the rope. The antics of middle aged/old men/women may seem irritating or plain dumb initially, but Russo treats them warmly and we get an idea of the failed dreams most has/had and which has caused them to behave in the manner they do. There is never any obvious justification though for any action and Russo follows the old credo of 'Show Dont tell' most of the time, letting the reader make his own inferences.  For e.g. we even get a sneak peek as to why Miles wife had an affair with the fitness instructor and left him and looking at it from the woman's POV, it may actually seem valid for her. One also starts thinking about, how little we know about another person, even though we spend a life time with them. Can we really claim to know someone fully?
Over a period of several weeks/months, Richard Russo gives us a vivid picture of life in Empire Falls, several events that occur which make people reassess their life all leading to a tragic ending, which again reaffirms in the old cliche of 'life must go on'. Nothing actually gets sorted out, things do not improve much, but there is certainly a change in the perspective of the characters. The ending is for the novel and not for Empire Falls and its citizens. For them life has still to be faced upfront, but as a novel it has to end somewhere and it does. And no, there is no moment of epiphany of revelation that brings about this change, but rather a sequence of events that do it. In some way, I think of this novel as a 'Coming of Age' novel, the only difference being, the characters are not some teenage kids, but middle aged/old persons. 

Though not central to the plot till the end, the character of John Voss, serves to highlight the cruelty inflicted by kids on someone who does not meet their standards. It also raises questions on the educational structure where the teachers are not aware or are unable to stop this kind of bullying which results in horrific consequences. 

So, is there no issue in this book, well I have a quibble here. Firstly, the prose sometimes gets stilted, I agree that everyone can introspect and can surprise us with their thoughts, but in some cases the thought process of the characters are so much of what the author wants to say rather than what the character would say and sticks out like a sore thumb. Thankfully this is in a minority and does not  jar the novel's flow much. The ending of the novel, though it is not clichéd or melodramatic seems a bit contrived. But these are minor ones compared to the overall richness of the novel.

This is not any ground breaking novel or one which pushes the boundaries of fiction in any sense and small town/family stories are not very uncommon. So what makes this novel better than most novels of this genre?  To use an analogy, it's like eating your favorite dish, say Idli/Sambar. All restaurants/hotels offer it, but only very few offer them in such a way that you like. The same basic ingredients, but some of them are more tasty/ even divine than others right? That's the case with Russo, he is a very good story teller, better than most. He also treats his characters equally, in the sense that there is no contrived events written just to show the worthiness of one character while putting down another. Human life with all its goodness, fallibility, folly, evil lurking underneath is shown as much as possible in fiction, with a genuine compassion for the characters. There is no false sunshine streamed on the characters to make them more worth than they could be.
This is a novel worth reading and highly recommended. 

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