“There is much to admire in The Heart Broke In . . . shines like a literary oasis.”
Examining too closely the deft shaping of the plot of James Meek’s new novel, The Heart Broke In, is like unfolding an origami crane in order to figure out how the form was achieved. Far better to appreciate it, to acknowledge the skill involved in its creation.
Ho-hum title aside, The Heart Broke In is a lovely thing, a graceful piece of writing.
In The Heart Broke In, Mr. Meek shows himself to be an oddity as a writer. Where cooks in the kitchen are said to fall into one of two camps—burners or cutters, depending upon which is, in their hands, the more dangerous thing, the knife or the hot pan—writers are said to either excel in narrative (in creating imaginative situations for their characters to struggle with) or in character (creating flesh and blood people in a wood pulp and ink medium). But not both.
And yet those who populate The Heart Broke In—jingle-singing scientists, artists, swelled-headed television hosts of the Simon Cowell sort, Bible thumping parents and their Bible-thumped offspring—are unlike any other characters inhabiting any other fiction in recent memory. And the Dickensian plot is an intricate, delicate, and deliberate thing, zigging just when the reader expects it to zag.
To exhaust my full quota of metaphors, the experience of reading this novel is akin to a snowball rolling down hill. Where the first few pages amuse, with a singing Lolita and her worldly mum, the ensuing experience ever more captivates, until the reader finds himself turning pages well into the night, choosing to read rather than sleep.
As to those opening pages, they give us this moment:
“He walked to his desk, opened the chill cabinet, and took an individual chocolate pudding serving from the stacks inside. He favored a brand called ChocPot, which came with its own wooden spoon attached, so he didn’t have to hunt for one. He flipped off the lid, put down the pot, and picked up his BlackBerry. He shoveled chocolate goo into his mouth with his right hand and scrolled through his e-mails with his left thumb. A dollop of pudding fell and landed on the shelf of his belly. He put the BlackBerry down, scraped most of the spill off with his index finger, raised the quivering dod to his lips, slurped the finger clean, and walked to the font. Without taking the T-shirt off he held it under the running tap with both hands and rubbed till the brown stain almost disappeared. He wrung the wet patch out.”
That’s Richie eating the pudding. He’s the television host and ex-semi-rock god, now bloated in both stomach and ego. He’s also the marital cheat and the linchpin of the plot.
His friend and one-time band mate Alex is another. He, like Richie’s sister Bec, is a scientist. She researches a cure for Malaria in Africa. He investigates cell regeneration and its impact on aging.
About Bec, we are given this wonderful detail:
“She didn’t tell anyone she was engaged. She felt no happiness, only a jangled feeling, as if she’d been in an accident.”
And about Alex there’s this:
“Hope lurched upright in him when the pretty girl on the door found his name on the list of invited guests and waved him into the bar of the Metropolitan, glittering with guests and booming with talk. His was one name in hundreds on a printout yet he felt recognized as belonging to the people of music. He’d thrown in his lot with the caste of cell biologists, and they wanted him, but he was disenchanted by his peers. If only, he thought, with his heart jumping, the musicians could see the savage beauty of the submicroscopic seas. If only they could understand their songs of love, death, and sorrow weren’t debased by being embodied in adenosine triphosphatase.”
Or this moment, more telling and more revealing of Alex:
“He had no ordinary adulthood, she said; he came out of himself only as a child, distracted by a trivial novelty, some bright color or pattern or catchy tune, or as a worried old man, shaken to his heart by an emotion that seemed to him like the end of the world—love, anger jealousy, the longing for an heir. ‘I don’t know who you’ll shack up with after me,’ she said, ‘but if she wants your attention I’d advise her to have a kazoo and a shotgun handy.’
“’It’s work,’ Alex said. ‘I’m exploring. I’m paid for my mind to be elsewhere.’”
James Meek is a careful author, building his characters, his plot, and the world in which they live using words like bricks in constructing something substantial, something meant to last. He is the purveyor of the telling detail, the turner of the telling phrase.
He is an author who can give us Henry James moments in which the slightest motion indicates so much. As here, where a woman yields to family pressure to allow a dying grandfather to, for just a moment, know his grandchild:
“’I was asking Lettie if I could hold my new grandson,’ said Harry.
“Matthew looked at his wife. ‘I don’t see why not,’ he said.
“Lettie put Gideon into the old man’s trembling arms. She didn’t let go, but allowed herself to be pulled closer to her father-in-law, so that once Harry had the baby cradled against his chest and was looking down into his face, she still cupped Gideon’s tiny head and touched his feet. The child was eyes and a glimpse of movement through the coral of adult fingers. Caressed, manhandled, and confused, Gideon began to scream, and Lettie took him and shuffled away, bouncing him and murmuring.
“’It was hard to get her to come,’ said Matthew.
“’We were getting on quite well,’ said Harry.”
There is much to admire in The Heart Broke In, much pleasure to be derived from within its pages. In a season typified by Hollywood memoirs and oversized cookbooks, this book quietly shines like a literary oasis.