This is a tricky novel to review. I’m not even sure it is a novel. And I’m not certain as to whether its fragmentary nature belies an organic structure of astutely sewn intention or is merely a disingenuous device to conceal a let’s-get-something-out cobbling together of unpublished material lying around the writer’s desk. What I can tell you is this: I was powerfully engaged and richly entertained by Sergio De La Pava’s PERSONAE.
To read Jason Schwartz is to enter a fugue state, in both senses of the word. His writing is, like a musical fugue, a mesmerizing series of themes stated successively in different voices; it is also, in the psychiatric sense, a state marked by wandering and an inability to remember one’s past accurately. It is a state unlike any other.
The art of witness, too, must forever keep circling back, confronting the past, trying to establish the truth of what has happened. This is the form of grief and recovery.
Tragedy, horror, and war demand a different sort of art. Writers who take up such subjects cannot be concerned only with beauty. They must balance aesthetics against ethics, and ask questions like, How do I write about someone who is dead? What gives me the right to tell his story?
"The South, more than any other region of America, is forbidding to outsiders. … I grew up with what I take to be a somewhat common perspective, on the South as charming but inscrutable, languid but dangerous, a place where sinkholes — real and metaphorical — await anyone who doesn’t know exactly where to step."
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.