Grace by Calvin Baker
Language, she is a harsh mistress. Especially dialogue. How do people really sound when they talk? How much do we reveal about ourselves in a simple back-and-forth? Are highly stylized language choices by an author seen as more literary? These are a few questions I asked myself while reading Calvin Baker's latest novel, Grace. That, and is it right to judge a book solely on its voice? After all, we all speak differently, we all write sentences that satisfy a kind of internal rhythm. Every drummer plays the same beat with his or her own kind of nuance.
The main character in Baker's fourth novel is Harper Roland, a thirty-seven-year-old African American war correspondent who quits his job at a magazine for screenwriting work with a narcissistic globetrotting director named Davidson. The screenwriting gig -- which seems to pay well and require little accountability -- allows Roland the luxury of time to contemplate his place in the world, his relationships and what he needs from them. Gone are the everyday concerns of money, bills, the cost of plane tickets, subletting New York apartments during said plane trips, feeding the cat. Don't even get me started that Roland is a writer, we should all be so lucky.
That said, the plot moves along nicely and with strong direction as we follow Roland through relationships with various existentially driven women, first the dead-on-arrival relationship with Devi, a Manhattan emergency room doctor, to the powerfully addicting bohemian love of Genevieve in Paris. These women seem to play to Roland's navel gazing: barely a moment passes where each relationship is not being discussed or dissected in micro form, and here is where the language becomes the stumbling block to what is otherwise a nicely paced novel.
It's stilted in the simplest of ways, word choices that had me wondering, is this narrator a hundred years old? "I had no earthly idea what he meant," the author writes, and the datedness of the word "earthly" seems to fall on the page like something borrowed from Jane Austen. A simple and small example to be sure, but I narrowed it down from a long list of awkward phrases and misplayed metaphors that had me wondering as to the depth of editing that went into the book. This is a young writer, this is a young narrator, why is the language so old?
Everyone in Grace seems to speak as if they've written the words out beforehand and have had a chance to verify their sources. Davidson says to Roland during a restaurant conversation about Genevieve:
"You know you're betting the long shot. [...] The improbable. Not to mention impractical. Love rarely works even in the best of cases. You know this, and yet will not help yourself. Either because you crave intensity of experience, a more and more potent drug, or else give privilege to the primal instinct for whom you can love, even when it does not withstand the scrutiny of what you yourself say you want. You wish for reason and desire to be the same, but sense they are at eternal war, Apollo and Dionysus, and know, or should know, misery is when you try but cannot reconcile them. Which will it be? The Romantics chose ardor and were undone. Ancient gods fell into the same divine snare. All perished. Read the myths. Neither will you escape this unharmed.
"None of us will," [Roland] answered.
"Lover's gamble. What Olympus would you challenge to palm the fire of gods?"
One can practically hear the mic drop.
And so it goes with most conversations in Grace. Gone is the innuendo, the humor, the passive-aggressiveness and other language beautifiers that can make dialogue such a useful tool for laying bare the subtlety of human emotion. Here everything is on the nose, everyone speaks like they're reading from the penultimate speech of a slightly better book.
But the story is engaging, even going so far as to culminate in a kidnapping by a group of bandits while Roland travels in Africa with Sylvie, his final love of the book. This makes the novel that much more puzzling, because stuff does happen, which is often not the case in books that rely on literary morals. This book is the reverse of, Yeah I loved the writing, but nothing happens, because it is the language that ultimately fails as it attempts to make the novel feel literary.
Baker strives for a voice that may have been better served by less writerly choices. Thoughts and sentence construction more fitting a thirty-seven-year-old New Yorker, because I was one of those once, and what I remember most is the pizza, and the beer, and the Lower East Side. I never once correctly quoted an important book, and if I did, it was more of the What-was-that-dude's-name-who-lived-on-Mount-Olympus variety.
The meditation in Baker's novel is compelling, and it begs us to look closer, to inspire important conversations and richer dialogue, to make better connections with people and to hold those connections up for observation. But we must balance it all with reality, especially when told in the first person. Language is not just statement, it is also pizza, and beer, and bills, and a laugh every once in a while.
In a recent NPR interview, Baker said the author must have a vertical relationship with language, to art itself, and I wonder if a more horizontal approach (to borrow Baker's metaphor) would have saved this novel from the loftiness placed on the prose. That the true depth and beauty of human connection often lies not in what we say, but how we say it.
Grace by Calvin Baker
Chris Tarry is the author of the story collection How To Carry Bigfoot Home and holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. His fiction, nonfiction, and various screenplays have been published widely. Chris is also a four-time Juno Award winner (the Canadian Grammy), and one of New York's most sought-after musicians.