Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Dave's The Name of the Butterfly

Dave's latest effort, The Name of the Butterfly, has not made nearly as big a splash as his previous novel, All the World Is Beer, an experimental coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a yeast cell.  In some ways Butterfly is a much more conventional book, but I don't think that accounts for its muted reception.  I think the book's richness takes time to unfold, and because it lacks some of the fireworks that critics have come to expect from Dave, it simply hasn't attracted the sustained attention that it demands (and deserves).

The book is set in a vaguely 19th-century, Holland-like country, but it makes no pretense to historical precision.  The main characters are Pieter, an actuary in a bustling commercial city, and his wife Saskia.  The couple met as young revolutionaries, members of the underground Socialist Party, and after the revolution they settled down to domesticity.

Pieter is discontented.  You might say that he was unnerved by the revolution.  He has become convinced that the decisions made by the Party leaders were rash and irresponsible, and that only an unlikely series of events, combined with the King's unwillingness to shed his subjects' blood, prevented a catastrophe.  Pieter's mind keeps returning to the square where he and Saskia had assembled with the other revolutionaries, where the King's soldiers could easily have mowed them down . . .  and where, overruling his advisors, the King ordered his troops to stand down and announced his abdication.  Pieter is horrified that the revolution came so close to bloodshed, and ashamed that this was only averted by the mercy of a man Pieter had previously slandered.

Part of Pieter's dissatisfaction with the revolution has to do with its incomplete attainment of its aims.  The King is gone and the Republic has been established, but the Socialists have been marginalized and the capitalists are firmly in charge.  Abroad, the government has adopted a far more colonial and imperialistic stance than the King ever did.  At home, religious fervor is on the rise, and Jews and homosexuals (who enjoyed the tacit protection of the King) have been driven out of public life.  On the whole, Pieter is not sure that the dissolute, tolerant, somewhat haphazard reign of the King was so much worse than the hyper-capitalist, religion-drenched war-mongering of the Republic.

Saskia, on the other hand, only regrets that her brush with great events was so brief.  She has reconnected with another revolutionary, Willem, who has prospered under the new regime.  From Pieter's view, Willem is one of the upper-class opportunists who never believed in the revolution but coopted it and perverted its turbulent course to his own benefit.  Willem in fact is a major stockholder in the insurance company that employs Pieter, and he divides his time between the capitol (where he cultivates his revolutionary connections) and his country estate, where he styles himself a naturalist.

As we come to see, Pieter's view of Willem is perhaps unfair.  Willem was never a socialist, and he took considerable personal risk, first in financing the early stages of the revolution, and then in publicly calling for a republic at a time when the King still had a firm grip on power.  Moreover, while Willem's lobbying efforts are venal, he takes no real interest in them and spends most of his time cataloguing butterflies.

And Willem, though taken with Saskia, does not use any of the means at his disposal to pursue her.  In fact, to his and Pieter's mutual chagrin, Saskia uses Willem's connections to insinuate herself into the amoral, psychosexually charged world of the capitol.  Here Dave writes with a light hand:  it is up to the reader to decide if Saskia is genuinely interested in lawmaking and party politics, or if she is merely addicted to the thrill of the fast-moving political world.  Either way, the novel takes on a frenetic and intoxicating energy when it focuses on her escapades in the capital.

The book is Dave's second-longest, at 798 pages, but it doesn't feel like a long book.  Perhaps this is because it never stops moving:  following Pieter to Willem's estate, then both the men to the capital, then Willem and Saskia back to the estate, then Saskia to Pieter, and so on.  But perhaps, too, there is something in the book that makes it feel very un-book-like.  Dave's writing has become far more placid and natural than it was during his coked-up "New York" phase, and Butterfly feels almost dream-like.  When you are finished, you will feel not so much that you've read a story, as that you've recovered a memory - that Dave has lifted up the veil a little, to show you the world as it truly is.


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