Leonard Lessing – stage name Lennie Less – is a saxophone player who has lost his zest for playing, lost the zest in his marriage, and lost the zest for engagement. So he’s taking a break. An extended one that has his wife increasingly impatient with him, and he knows it. He also knows she is right. Then one day, Lennie sees a face on the news (he’s a news and media junkie) that is straight out of the past, and he’s jarred. Back in the day….
Well, I should say the novel takes place in a future world, but one not unrecognizable, not too far into the future: 2024. An odd, but interesting choice. That world, 14 years on from our own, hasn’t changed all that much, except in subtle ways. Personal freedoms seem to have been reduced, but not so that most people recognize that fact. If the loss of personal freedoms is a creeping loss, then this is what it would look like. “Security” and the forces that keep us “safe” seem to have grown, in the same creeping way. We’ve (they) have accepted it as the price necessary.
So. Back in the day is 2006, and Lennie had spent some time in Austin, Texas with Max and his girlfriend Nadia in that year. Max had befriended Nadia in England and had his own designs on her, but upon arrival in Austin, he found her living with Max. The three of them were political activists: Max of the radical and confrontational kind, Lennie of the more muted variety, with “”Red” Nadia somewhere between the two. When Max had left Austin (not on the best of terms with either of them), he had not seen them since. But now there was Max on the television, right in the middle of a hostage taking. He decides to go to the scene of the crisis (Max had not yet been identified).
On the way there in his car, he listens to an old concert of his. Here, and elsewhere throughout the book, the writing on music is vivid and informed. These are my favorite parts of the novel. Crace really shows his chops here.
When he arrives, he finds he has been beaten to the identification by Max’s estranged daughter, Lucy. Nadia had been pregnant with Lucy when he left Austin. Lennie is talked into a scheme cooked up by Lucy, but backs out before it can be put into action. He gets cold feet, blaming his wife Francine for his reticence. A sofa activist – an acronym that Lucy runs with.
Crace also writes effectively on the relationship between Lennie and his wife, which is complicated, but loving. They bicker a bit, and though it’s all a bit stale, it’s still a solid marriage. Francine’s daughter Celandine from a previous marriage had left the house many months prior, without a word since. This is a gnawing hurt for Francine that is there between them, though Lennie had been the voice of reason between mother and daughter.
The day of Lennie’s 50th birthday is a turning point in all their lives. It’s the day in which Lennie speaks frankly to Francine about his Austin days (at her insistence), something he had not before. This is the part of the novel where the reader learns the back-story as well.
The hostage situation comes to its conclusion, and Lennie has an epiphany. Back in their apartment, watching the denouement of the story he realizes something about himself:
It is astounding to discover that while he has not been watching the news, he has become the news, he has been living it. It’s too early to know if this is a pleasing or a costly development. A pounding heart can signify both things.
This is a hopeful novel by a graceful writer, a good story-teller, who has a thing or two to say about where it is possible to end up if we lose the spark for living. The knack and desire for engagement.