The Beholder


Sunday, August 4, 2002


     Thomas Farber wants to melt into his subject. Usually, that's water;
he's a surfer. When it's not water, it's love. The mythical kind. The talk-till-all-hours, bone-rattling passion,I-can't-be-with-you-it-will-destroy-me kind. But when he writes about water,you can also feel the earth move. Love is torture for Farber. Water is pure pleasure. "On Water," Farber's 1994 nonfiction book on surfing, mostly in Hawaii, was "an effort to read water--to find words for what was right before my eyes--as well as an appraisal of how others had read it."
     That's Farber 's brain explaining "On Water." Actually, it was the
writer creating a new language, his own, but also universal; language being born before the reader's eyes right out of nature and man's experience in nature--the way it was in the beginning. The sentences in "On Water" did not play by the usual rules. They played by water rules, crashing and foaming or rolling on gently to a casual end.
     "A Lover's Question," a collection of stories, was published in 2000,
but a writer like Farber needs room to move around. The more formal the
constraints, the more difficult he is to read. The stories are so compressed they tumble over each other like puppies. Farber doesn't wallow well in detail, so the stories are too bald: she fell in love, it hurt, she died sort of thing.
     "The Face of the Deep" (1998) was a continuation of the meditation on
water and on Farber's travels through the Pacific Islands; Samoa, Cocos
Island and Hawaii on a National Endowment for the Arts grant. The book's
style is more journalistic than "On Water." In other words, Farber uses
complete sentences. He's on his best behavior, because of the grant and all.
     Still, sentences like these slip through: "This continuum,
concatenation, of sunrises and sunsets, Venus strong in the early night sky, Jupiter pulsing before daybreak. Solar days dazzling, overwhelming, dream state without beginning or end. Night: gibbous moon riding high, rivers, torrents of wind tattooing eddies and swirls on the skin of the ocean."
     In this new novel, "The Beholder," Farber uses the language he created to write about water to write about his nemesis, love. Sometimes it sounds like stream-of-consciousness, but it's not; it's just Farber rushing to meet his point, to meet what he considers to be the salient essence of that phrase, that piece of the puzzle.
     "Her sensibility, journey to their first meeting. Pain, sorrow.
Self-invention. Story she tells herself; story the writer hears. He
pictures, is intended to picture, an almost princess, a faraway land." There are only two characters in the novel: a writer, 49, single, and a married woman, young enough to "be his daughter."
     The writer is referred to in the third person as "the writer," a
character who has made several appearances in Farber's previous fiction.
He's dapper, lonely, surrounded by people. He's a surfer. She is literally a
princess from a foreign country, pursuing a career in academia. As in
Farber's other fiction, there is a lot of talk about Art, what it is, what
it means, whether it's more or less important than anything else.
     The relationship, the sex and the talk, reminds a reader immediately of
Milan Kundera's fiction. It is a relationship that challenges conventional
social morality and in so doing calls into question the fabric of that
society, its politics, its culture, its class structure. It is a
relationship with a mean streak a mile wide. The writer and the princess
pretend, throughout the relationship, that they are father and daughter.
This makes a reader want to look away even while we behold, like guilty
voyeurs, this relationship on paper.
     But the writing makes the relationship feel quite organic. We know
there will be a natural decay, like a wave running to shore. There is a
pitch and a slide, all very gentle, but no less painful than any other
relationship. As in Kundera, there is something inevitable, historic, about
its demise.
     The writer has a friend who tells him that writers are "the canary in
the mine shaft"; they explore emotions and play with situations to see what dangers lurk, how we might feel, how a situation might change a person.
     "Stress," the friend says, "is resistance to things as they are."
Farber's characters slam headlong into "things as they are." In fact, they
move toward that point on the horizon like geologic, rather than biological, beings. This makes them more and less real at the same time. It is what makes Farber's fiction so original. It could not be done in any other language than Farber's own. He had to make it up himself. The risks he takes make him a canary in the literary coal mine.