Review of Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/1/05
There is little doubt that all of the major arts in this nation are converging in a nadir that is not pretty. Think of it: in literature, the poetry is stale, formless, filled with the rantings of hipster wannabes or bloated Academics or PC Elitists, and the fiction and memoirs are dominated by lite crap as Chick Lit or the gaseous eructations known as Postmodernism. Film has seen no young studs like those that arrived in the 1960s or 1970s, Where are a young Martin Scorseses, Robert Altmans, or Francis Ford Copollas? TV is even worse- larded with stale ideas as cop shows, medical shows, spy shows, not to mention reality tv’s nonsense. And the few shows that try to be different- Lost, Desperate Housewives- are merely pale imitations of better shows from the past. Where is a political edgy show like All In The Family, an Absurdist romp like Gilligan’s Island, a pathos-laden sitcom like The Honeymooners, an adventure show that breaks the mold like the original Star Trek, or even a genre bender like the original Twilight Zone? And, are there any serious drams of the kind that The Waltons or Family represented? Painting seems to have died about twenty years ago. Not a single new innovator has come along- and Keith Haring’s graffiti doesn’t count. There simply are no Monets nor Goyas around, nor even on the horizon. And music- from classical to jazz to rock to rap to country. Aside from Shania Twain’s belly button or Beyoncé Knowles’ booty, is there any reason to listen?
Well, thankfully, some gems do sneak past the culture killers that purvey pap regularly in print. One of those is the 1998 short novel Big Fish: A Novel Of Mythic Proportions, by Daniel Wallace. It’s a terrific book, and possibly even great. It’s not pretentious, it’s not larded with ‘depth’ that reeks. It simply tells, through a couple dozen vignettes, the tale of a legendary man named Edward Bloom (not to be confused with pseudo-critic Harold Bloom nor James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom). I reviewed the film a while back, and found it to be wanting. That’s the way a Tim Burton film can affect you. How that ceaselessly puerile director got a hold of this terrific little book and nearly ran it into the ground is beyond me. The actual book is, as the apothegm goes, much better than the film. Yes, there are many of the famed scenes from the film, but also alot more. The bond between Edward Bloom and his son William, narrator of film and book, is much more strongly developed, and the end far more poignant than the dumbed-down Disneyfied movie. In fact, the only really good purpose the film served was likely in increasing readership for the book. This is why picked up a good copy at a used bookstore, and am thankful for the million dollar commercial the film turned out to be.
Basically, the tale is the life of Ashland, Alabama’s favorite son, Edward Bloom, an absentee salesman father, who tries to fill in the gaps of his own absence by telling tall tales to his son. In reality, Edward is old, fat, and not too popular. He was a scoundrel, of sorts, whose life was defined as such: ‘The very idea of coming home at the same time every single day made him just a little nauseated. Regardless of how much he loved his wife, his son, he could only stand so much love.’ On his deathbed, his son rebels, and wants a real moment. It’s all told through colorful chapters with titles like In Which He Speaks To Animals, How He Tamed The Giant, and His Immortality, wherein Edward Bloom meets two-headed ladies, giants, and lost souls. This fairy tale techniques only heightens the real moments of emotional contact between the two men, as Edward’s death is told four different times, each with slight differences that build on the earlier versions, and which are the ‘serious’ underpinnings of the tale. And the book avoids bathos by having Edward be a scoundrel right up until his apotheosis at book’s end, into literally the titular character. He says, for example, ‘If I shared my doubts with you, about God and love and life and death, that’s all you’d have: a bunch of doubts. But now, see, you’ve got all these great jokes.’ And, in the end, the son becomes the father by succumbing to myth’s spell. This is foreshadowed by the way William always talks about his father’s dreams. Any son will tell you his mother’s lessons were learned by rote, but his father’s were absorbed by osmosis, and William tells this to the reader by not telling us.
This sort of relationship is reflected in the way son speaks of father, as in this snippet from How He Saved My Life, which of course Edward didn’t, as son is more like father than he realizes. Note the imagery:
The second time my father saved my life we had just moved to a new house on Mayfair Drive. The previous owner had left a swing set behind, and as the movers lugged in our old couches and dining-room table, I set my sights on seeing just how high that baby would go. I pumped with all I had, shaking the swing with the pulse of my power. Unfortunately, the previous owner hadn’t left the swing behind; they had merely yet to take it. They had released the legs of the frame from the cement that anchored them to the ground, and so as I swung higher and higher I was actually taking the weight of the set with itself with me, until, at the top of my highest arc, the set plunged forward, sending me out of the swing and on an unlikely trajectory toward a white picket fence, on which I assuredly have been impaled. Suddenly I felt my father near me; it was as though he were flying, too, and that we were both falling together. His arms embraced me like a cloak, and I came to rest on the ground beside him. He had plucked me from Heaven and set me down safely on Earth.
Oddly enough, the book’s episodic nature reminded me most of Girl, Interrupted, another very good book made into a mediocre movie. Of course, Big Fish is more expansive and light-hearted. It also is not in chronological order, as the tales wenf through time. In this way it greatly parallels the masterpiece of Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. Yet, where Vonnegut’s book took a real world ‘big event’ and crammed it inward, to reveal the psychosis of its lead character, Big Fish takes the smallest nubs of a human relationship, and unfolds it writ large. It is also not a regional book, dependent upon place the way William Faulkner’s books are, and it is far more lucid, taken as a whole, or some as tales that stand on their own, than the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Zora Neale Hurston. Wallace’s colloquialism works well, and his sense of character is spot-on, both in those more realistic characters, and even in the fabular ones. I’d like to go more into depth on the book, but its being so short (I read it in little over an hour- but I am a fast reader) makes me loath to spoil some of its charm. Suffice to say, I recommend this book being read by everyone, regardless of age. I just hope Wallace’s two later works Ray in Reverse and The Watermelon King are as good when I eventually find them on sale. Also, check out the author’s website http://www.danielwallace.org/.
When the literary history of the millennial era is written, years from now, there is likely to be a writer by the name of Wallace who is declaimed one of the greats of his day, and it won’t be the flatulent, talentless hack known as David Foster. He’ll likely share my first name.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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