July 12, 2012


The Bellwether Revivals. By Benjamin Wood. Viking. $26.95.

      A big, determinedly old-fashioned, engrossing novel that reads like an expansive Victorian indulgence updated for the 21st century, The Bellwether Revivals is a book for readers who like to immerse themselves in an author’s world and simply soak in it for a good long time.  Reading in some ways like a 400-plus-page version of The Fall of the House of Usher, Benjamin Wood’s novel is firmly set in the present but consistently feels as if it is taking place in a slightly skewed alternative reality.  The characters have depth – more of it than those in many of its Victorian forebears – but they feel slightly unworldly, a touch difficult to grasp or pin down.  And that becomes a large part of their charm and the pleasure of the story itself.

      It is not, at bottom, a complex story: an outsider named Oscar Lowe, having surmounted his mean-streets background, is working in the storied city of Cambridge, England, when he encounters members of the old, wealthy and insular Bellwether family, and becomes enmeshed in their close-knit group of acquaintances and their faintly sinister interests (this does sound like Poe’s Usher, doesn’t it?).  Those interests, which revolve around music, are part of the initial bond between Oscar and Iris Bellwether and, more chillingly, represent the genius – or mania – of Iris’ brother, Eden.  The brother and sister have a very close and faintly unnatural relationship that is sure to end badly (more echoes of Poe there), and their hangers-on are swept into their orbit by the sheer force of the Bellwether personalities and determination.

      At the core of the novel is the power of music – what that power is, who can invoke it, and what its limits are.  This is heady and sophisticated material for a 21st-century novel, and Wood handles it very well indeed.  Early on, Eden describes Iris as a “Cognitivist” with “some very cold-hearted ideas about how music works,” contrasting her with himself as an “Emotivist” and a believer in the notion that music not only has charms that can soothe the savage breast but also has genuine healing power – power that Eden believes himself capable of harnessing through the theories of Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a composer and noted music theorist.  Mattheson was a friend of Handel, but the two later became enemies and Mattheson almost killed the more-famous composer in a duel – after which the men were reconciled.  This much is history, but Wood has Eden invoke Mattheson in a stranger way, as the supposed discoverer of musical means that can make people feel certain things, can control them, and – of particular interest to Eden – can heal them.

      The way Wood has Eden describe these outlandish notions makes them seem far-fetched but not totally unreasonable – after all, music can and does evoke specific emotions, making listeners feel happy, sad, uplifted, depressed, and so forth.  Furthermore, Wood discusses enough real-world effects of art – the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the poems of Sylvia Plath – to pull readers along toward the idea that there may be other effects not yet discovered or explored.  That the exploration will prove dangerous, even fatal, is abundantly clear from the Prelude (actually closer to a postlude) with which the novel begins; besides, this is just that sort of story, with a kind of “dance of doom” aura about it.  But Wood so skillfully sweeps readers into this dance that curiosity about how things will play out overcomes the reality of knowing, from the start, just how badly matters are going to turn out in the end.

      The erudition of The Bellwether Revivals is pervasive but not intrusive.  It shows itself in evocative chapter titles: “A Reversible Lack of Awareness,” “The Harmony of What Exists,” “The Treatment of Our Mutual Friend,” “Ibidem,” “A Light Went Off in the Organ House.”  It pervades much of the descriptive material and a great deal of the dialogue, even though here Wood sometimes slips into banality (as when Iris tells Oscar, “Somehow I feel like I could tell you anything”).  The casual references to Plato, Pythagorean planetary theory, Descartes, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Rupert Brooke, Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin and other people and ideas fit neatly into the Cambridge university aesthetic, but there is always something sinister just beneath the learning and coexisting with it, for example when Eden – with Iris’ complicity – puts a nail through Oscar’s hand.

      The skill with which Wood develops subsidiary characters is a big part of the book’s charm.  The most interesting of these secondary (but still important) people is Dr. Paulsen, a patient at the local nursing home where Oscar works and a character about whose earlier life as an English professor at Cambridge readers may want to know more – this is still a man of whom Wood writes, “There were more books in his room than anything else, in fact; more novels and poetry collections and anthologies than stripes on the wallpaper.”  Making an elderly nursing-home resident such as Dr. Paulsen come alive while also limning the oddities and preoccupations of a group of rich, bored and mentally unstable youths is quite an accomplishment.  So is Wood’s way of encapsulating characters’ reactions to each other, as when Oscar thinks about Iris’ parents, “They had that impossible confidence that comes from wealth, the self-righteousness that comes from piety.”

      Wood does tend to overdo such often-overdone techniques as foreshadowing: it is obvious that something really awful is going to happen when he writes, as Iris is driven away by her father, “the reflection of the dimming sky came sweeping over the glass to vanish her.”  And the book sometimes depends rather too heavily on coincidence as a mover of events – another respect in which it resembles its Victorian predecessors.  But The Bellwether Revivals is, finally, old-fashioned in all the right ways: deep, paced slowly but not glacially, populated by believable characters whose interactions are driven by their personalities as much as by the exigencies of the plot.  It is not, however, a book that invites rereading, partly because its dour and drab final pages balance so uneasily between being an inevitable conclusion and a disappointing one.  But this is Wood’s first novel – in all likelihood, there will be others to explore in the future.

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