I’ve been hearing that publishers don’t like prefaces to novels. They say those are just a note to the author, not the reader. But I’ve lately read a couple of novels that were published with a preface. So I asked myself, why? The Kitchen House opens with a preface in which we see a woman hanging from a tree. The novel then tells us how that came about. That preface does a little work in giving the reader a sort of mystery: who, why, etc? Rules of Civility (Amor Towles, Penguin, 2012) is a far better novel that opens with a preface. I’m looking at it carefully to see why.
It opens with a date: October 4, 1966. So it does that little task, and we meet the narrator, an upper middle class Manhattan editor and her husband. Then we’re told that the scene is the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the opening of a show called,Many Are Called, “portraits” the narrator says, taken by Walker Evans, taken surreptitiously on the subway in New York City, during the depression years. Evans had a camera up his sleeve, and took pictures of the people sitting directly opposite him on the subway, without their ever knowing they were being photographed. (If you have time, stop here and think about the epigraph, a quotation from Matthew 22:8 to 14, where Christ does some parable ending with “many are called, but few are chosen.” So far I haven’t figured that out, so I asked my local library to get the Evans book, Many Are Called. Still haven’t figured it out. The epilogue of the novel is titled “few are chosen.”)
The preface goes on to a little discussion of the nature of society these days, that is, 1966: too much drinking, for one thing. But it focuses on the role of the US in the world now that World War II has decimated our competition and the Russians don’t seem to be much of a threat. Then the preface narrows down to Manhattan and to the exhibit of photographs taken back in the thirties. Depression and flappers.
And the narrator begins her personal history, her own life during the depression. She imagines that the exhibit might be quite a revelation for the younger people there, but for her it brings up old ghosts, and one old ghost in particular: there are two portraits of a man one surmises was once a romantic attachment. The first they see shows him “ill shaven in a threadbare coat” underweight, but bright eyed and addressing the world. Vibrant and naive. The second one they see shows the same man well dressed, filled out, handsome, sure of himself. Perhaps a little world-weary. But. The second picture they see is actually the younger version of the man. This is not about a young man finding himself. It’s about a man losing himself. Or is it? The novel will be not about the rise, but rather about the fall, of Tinker Grey. Or not.
The narrator alludes to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which you may remember is a poem about the moral bankruptcy of Edwardian England: “time enough to murder and create—or at least, to have warranted the dropping of a question on your plate.” In the context the question appears to be the question of what has happened in her past. And the question on her plate is the question of what happened then, not just the events, but what did they mean?
And the allusion suggests at least some moral decay as a theme for the novel. I note that near the end of the novel the narrator again alludes to Prufrock, “There will be time for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions.” The novel is bookended with Prufrock. (“And in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” ---the poem, like this preface, is set in a high society art gallery.) And the structure of the novel is rather well described there: a hundred visions and revisions. This is not a novel with a strong plot, where the protagonist confronts an evil and vanquishes that evil in the final scene. What it does is give us the narrator’s vision of each character, and then at least one revision, in some cases several revisions, none of them really conclusive. Ultimately they are visions and revisions of society in New York City. Think The Great Gatsby, and also, Edith Wharton (House of Mirth, specifically).
And the theme of the portraits is carried out through the book, with some of Evans’ portraits introducing sections, as if the novel, too, is an exhibition of a series of portraits.
The cultural density of the novel is impressive. And the writing is masterly. Like so many other writers today, Towles manages at least one simile, usually rather epigrammatic, per page. They are extended similes that account for much of the texture of the prose, and often for the cultural density that causes me to hear so much more per line. There are whole metaphoric paragraphs where the energy is concentrated like a black hole: but these emit a lazer light.
So. What does this preface do? It sets up a world context for the novel, and a social context, takes us into the depression through the eyes of a celebrated, photographer, who actually lived outside the novel, and lets us know that the novel will be very literary, by which I mean it locates itself in the literary world, takes up the questions our best literature explores, and then finally narrows down to the business of what happened to one particular man during the thirties, as seen from the point of view of one specific woman.
This preface is rich enough to be a novel in itself. It is a guide to reading the novel, raises all the themes the novel will work out. Is it really necessary? Would the novel succeed without it? Could this not have been handled as Chapter 1? Perhaps. In any case, I am grateful for the heads up. The novel is very rich and I love spending time with it. - SQ
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