June 2008

Jonathan Shipley

fiction

Fall of Frost: A Novel by Brian Hall

What many of us think of when we picture Robert Frost is an old man, a shock of white hair sprouting atop his head. He’s dressed primly in a suit and tie. He’s, perhaps, sitting at a desk on a New England farm scribbling out a new poem about walls or trees or forests or farms on clean white paper. This picture is incomplete, however, as Brian Hall’s new fictionalization of Frost's life, Fall of Frost, attests. It is a lyrical, though confounding, narrative.

Things you may not know about Robert Frost that you will know after reading Hall’s book -- he’s not from the East Coast but from San Francisco; his only sibling had to be institutionalized; he went to Russia to meet Khrushchev; of his five children one died before the age of four, one committed suicide, one went insane, one died in childbirth. Indeed, the poet Americans love (there with Carl Sandburg and all the rest) had a life few would love to follow. Hall does his best in trying to detail Frost's struggles through short crystallized chapters, nearly poems themselves.

On the death of Frost’s son Elliott:

You and Elinor [his wife] carried to Derry the baby Lesley, and your three hundred chickens, and not a thing of Elliott’s. If you had a photograph of him, Elinor would protect it with her life. But it would be too holy a relic ever to look upon, its name unpronounceable… But you have no photograph. You have only your mind’s eye, the boy turning to you for protection, and behind him the white wings beating upward.

It is the immediacy and intimacy of Frost’s life (the deaths of his children, the love of his wife, the origins of his best-loved poems) that Hall brings into clear focus that makes the book work. The chapter, for instance, detailing the origins of “The Road Not Taken” -- Frost’s relationship with a young man shuffled off to World War I -- is one of the best chapters in the book. “So much went into that poem that means so much to you, so deeply and obscurely (about you and him, about choice, about fate and the dark glass), that you’ve never been sure what the poem actually says, still less what a reader sees.”

Hall, author of I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, a well-received fictional account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, filled in the gaps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Sacagawea and others, and he’s tried to do the same here with Frost, though his non-linear structure weakens the book as a whole.

There’s no reason the narrative can’t simply be linear, birth to death for instance, or with small hops from New England winters to teaching at Amherst to his meeting Khrushchev, but Hall has taken Frost’s life, cut it up into little bits, put them in a literary hat, dumping out the contents and writing Frost’s life story as a jumble. Chapter 33 takes place in England in 1914, chapter 34 in Colorado in 1932, chapter 35 New Hampshire in 1905, chapter 37 in Vermont in 1954 and then back to 1900 New Hampshire in chapter 38. This disjointedness leads to confusion. These jumps -- not merely hops when in one chapter it's 1961 and the very next its 1884 -- makes Frost’s life, which Hall is trying to illuminate, shadowy, harder to pin down. Certainly Hall gets inside Frost’s head (“All his poems -- all of them -- are for her, not to keep, but to return with comments. They are the flower-children he brings to his white lily”) but due to the unrestrictive bounding about the reader gets snap shots of Frost, his thoughts, life and work but not the whole photo album.

Fall of Frost: A Novel by Brian Hall
Viking
ISBN: 067001866X
352 Pages