As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.
Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.
Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – family.
Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.
Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.
Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.
For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,
One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).
Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.
If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.
This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.
Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy