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The History of Now by Daniel Klein

The History of Now (2009)

by Daniel Klein

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3311338,203 (3.82)1 / 10



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Every writer sets out to tell you something, but only the reader can say what has been told, and often as not it bears little resemblance to what the writer had in mind. That’s why books are such a blast: reading is a re-creative experience and it’s a wise writer that gives the reader enough material to make up their own book. Daniel Klein is a wise writer.

Klein claims that the History of Now is ‘an old fashioned philosophically inclined novel’. It may well be. The fact that the Melville Block in the small Massachusetts town of Grandville is, quite literally, centre stage, suggests as much. But this reader took something else from the story, something far grander than philosophical inclinations, a gloriously warm celebration of small town life and small ambitions struggling to survive in a world where small is no longer beautiful, or if it is, it is being reduced to the mere picturesque, a backdrop for the posturing of people who want to play at lifestyle but aren’t much interested in the living that engendered the lifestyle in the first place.

‘Small town America’ is a phrase that will conjure the names of many writers, but if you’re into comparisons, the closest to Daniel Klein in terms of warmth, wit and affection with a good dose of realism steering us away from sentimentality is Richard Russo, or Russo at his best. Like Russo, Klein creates attractive, flawed characters for whom you want nothing but the best, but he isn’t afraid of treating them with a little necessary cruelty, thwarting their ambitions and putting them in some pretty dire situations from which they eventually emerge, bruised but not broken, in large measure thanks to and enriched by their own humanity and the links they forge with those around them.

The book opens with a bravura set piece narrative covering a life’s span and the experiences of several generations in a mere ten pages, at once setting the scene and establishing themes that are to be echoed throughout the book. This technique is repeated later, each chapter being prefaced by a discourse on superficially tangential material that will be explored more deeply in the subsequent events. It’s a neat trick and not one that’s easy to carry off with the grace achieved by Klein, but in every instance these mini-prefaces are fascinating in their own right, so the reader never reaches the italics signalling an alternative, sometimes more intrusive authorial voice, and thinks, “Oh, no, just get on with the story”. On the contrary, these apparent digressions are a pleasure and, no matter how engaging the principal characters, no matter how well-engineered the preceding emotional cliff-hanger, the shift in narrative voice is so well managed that one is always ready to take a break and follow Klein off the beaten track into terrain not strictly relevant to the central story. The overall effect is a layering of story and history that makes the personal narratives at once more powerful and more resonant, and gradually builds up a detailed picture of the big little world that makes Grandville grand.

Klein is good on rhythm, too, both on the large scale of narrative pace and the patterns of history that parallel and impact on his characters’ lives, and on the small scale, i.e. the rhythm of sentence length within paragraphs and the rhythms of small town lives that are echoed through the structuring of each chapter. In terms of tone, he does tenderness particularly well (notably the cack-handed caring of ordinary people muddling through as best they can), never straying into the saccharine, and he’s tart enough to do a nice line in skewering pretension, snobbery and vanity without sneering at what are lamentable but very human follies. There are also some deft reflections on commonplace pettiness, muted racism, and that shifty, dissembling schadenfreude to which most of us are prone at one point or another despite being unwilling to admit it, even to ourselves.

Does he get anything wrong? Yes. The idea of an internet-illiterate American teenager floored me with its implausibility, his adverbs are all over the place (or misplaced often enough to trouble an anal retentive like myself), and the South American sections seemed flatter and less fully realized than the rest of the book, perhaps because they require a more baroque, Latinate treatment than Klein’s self-effacing, New England sobriety. But those are quibbles.

This is a book that never fails to engage. I don’t know whether I’d call it philosophically inclined. But as a portrait of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time it’s nigh on perfect. Come the end, Grandville is somewhere you do not want to leave.
  CharlesDavis | Jan 3, 2010 |
I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped to, but I think it will have its audience. It's driven by plot, setting and, to some extent, ideas, rather than getting into the hearts and minds of its characters, which is my preference. It has an omniscient narrator who directly addresses the reader as in, "We shall speed ahead here . . .", a technique I find irritating and distracting. The title and opening epigraph are intriguingly thought provoking, but the book ends with a bold-text, paragraph-long moral, as if the author didn't trust the power of his story or understanding of his reader. What drew me to this book initially was believing it might resemble Rebecca Goldstein's "philosophical" novel, The Mind Body Problem, a character driven book full of ideas that I'm still thinking about, that inspired me to research and read other books, fiction and nonfiction. This book with its dictated be-here-now message doesn't hold the same charm for me. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Aug 19, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The History of Now, by Daniel Klein, opens by recounting an arson, one that will facilitate the commercial development of an important block in downtown Grandville, a quintessential small New England town nestled in the Berkshires. Part of that block will become the Phoenix, a theatre designed to draw a regional crowd, and a great success until the age of the silver screen.

The chain of events that leads to the opening of the Phoenix brings up the philosophical thread of the novel right from the beginning—how did we get where we are now? With “now” so precariously balanced on the chain of events that preceded it, how can we know when it really begins or ends? In the case of the Phoenix, that chain of events included: the arson; the membership of Hans deVries in the group of developers; the desire of Hans’s charming wife Françoise for a theatre in the town; Françoise’s idea to send the architect to Quebec City where he will have a tryst with her cousin and realize how badly he wants to design a spectacular theatre.

The main action takes place in the Grandville of today, still a place of townies and second-homers, but updated with a Japanese restaurant, Iraq war protesters, and permanently transplanted New Yorkers who want to live a rustic post-9/11 life. This Grandville is perfectly drawn, and frequent trips back in time show us bits and pieces of how it ended up that way.

The book seems at first mostly focused on these larger historical questions, but there is a smaller but perhaps more interesting display of the importance of cause and effect in the characters’ interactions with each other. Lila deVries, for example, an alienated high school student in the present day, overhears her classmate Stephanie crying alone in the gym and, acting in the only human way possible, goes to comfort her. But she does not trust Stephanie, believes she is crying for selfish or pathetic reasons, and later refuses to continue with any sort of friendship because she thinks she knows the type of girl she is dealing with. We, of course, know how wrong Lila is, how wrong she gets Stephanie’s motivations, but without knowing how Stephanie came to be in that gym by herself Lila can only fill in the blanks with her own prejudice.

A great source of human misunderstanding: one character cannot comprehend the actions of another without knowing his motivation, so the actions of “now” aren’t just about “now” but about everything before that brought them about. This microcosmic representation of the issue is critical; the history of Grandville and the deVries family is good, but too big-picture, I think, to really convey the importance of the theme on its own.

Most of the flashbacks deal with the distant past, and there are years’ worth of blanks in the timeline so that we can’t see every link in the chain (a pattern nicely mirrored in the research of a historian studying a runaway slave who would become a deVries forebear). But in one contemporary case we can see straight back from Grandville to the mountains of Colombia, where a family in tragic straits will flee to Bogotá, and later the oldest son will move slowly north to join the rest of the cast in New England. Here even the most minor of characters suddenly becomes key and the seemingly jarring tale of a Colombian refugee begins to make sense. And it’s all so precarious: if Hector had not done this, if Pato had not done that…where would we be?

Toward the end, a community college philosophy professor provides a vehicle to make the themes a bit more explicit; the result is a little didactic but not heavy-handed. The writing didn’t really pop for me, but the descriptions and characterizations were spot-on and deVries family life completely enchanting. In the end I am also struck by the secretiveness of many of the characters. We don’t always want others to know why we do things; those reasons can be personal, private, and painful. But without those reasons we’ll be disconnected, from the past, from “now,” and from the future which can only continue from the present. ( )
  nperrin | Apr 3, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The letter accompanying this early reviewers copy mentions that 38 publishers turned this novel down as “too philosophical.” Of course, the list of novels rejected by numerous publishers, which later became blockbuster, best sellers, is long. A recent example – J.K. Rowling and the seven-volume Harry Potter series.

Daniel Klein has spun a remarkable philosophical tale, which reminds me a little of Richard Russo and his small town cast of characters. Personally, I can’t wait for the next two volumes in the “Grandville Trilogy” to piece together a complete picture of this Massachusetts town, its history, and the interesting cast of characters that populated it from its founding several hundred years ago up to the months following 9/11.

Philosophical novels that delve deeply into the psyche of the characters enthrall me every time, and Klein’s novel is no exception.

This novel, scheduled for publication in March 2009, is a must read for all students of fiction. I am going to get a copy, and I will update this reviews with some quotes from the published version. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/15/09 ( )
  rmckeown | Mar 15, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
After reading the jacket notes for The History of Now by Daniel Klein, I was expecting a book that might be more philosophy than fiction, a bit heavier reading than I usually expect from fiction. I was delightedly surprised to find that, although still rich with philosophical questions, this was a very readable story.

At first, the history of Grandville's theater seemed to be a bit of a slow start. As I continued to read, it helped create the reality of the place. I wasn't simply plopped into 'anytown' and left to create the atmosphere in my own imagination. Klein's historical detail also provides vital information for the kinds of questions the story may raise. We can see part of why Wendell, Franny and Lila are the people they are in this history. Their history is part of their lives, as is anyone's. It is part of what makes Grandville the town it is.

No character was too minor for Klein to make real. Although some of the depictions are clearly from the deVries family's point of view and a bit one sided, Klein still managed to portray them clearly enough for the reader to see that one-sidedness for what it was. They manage to be both individuals and archetypes of small town life. If I walked into Grandville I would know each of the characters from this book as soon as I met them. I feel like I know them, and that's always a sign of a good story.

The plot itself is simple. It's the chronicle of a year in the life of the deVries family. Events in their lives are both mundane and dramatic. Klein find the right emphasis to create anticipation and resolution. It kept me interested all the way.

Not every question posed by the story is answered; not every problem is solved, but this is how life is and there is no sense of this being an incomplete story. The one disappointment I have is with Hector's story. His life and how he gets to Grandville is compelling, yet there is nothing of his story once he gets to Grandville. We don't really see how the deVries family has changed him, nor and see only a bit of how he changes them (if, indeed, change is the right word in either case). Neither do we get any idea of the cultural differences and the difficulties they can cause. I wanted to see these things and the kinds of questions they could raise. Having invested as much as he did in Hector's early story, his impact in Grandville did not match my expectations. (And yet, as I think about it, I can think of several apparently unimpressive people in my own life whose history can easily match Hector's.)

Still, this desire for more is as much because of the richness and satisfaction of the deVries/Grandville' stories, as for any sense of incompleteness. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Grandville and the deVries' lives. I will have no problem recommending this book to others. ( )
  Airycat | Mar 6, 2009 |
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Small, almost imperceptible changes are rippling through the New England village of Grandville, altering it in ways its inhabitants cannot yet imagine. Laced through a narrative of one recent year in Grandville's history are stories that reach back to a 17th century family in Rotterdam, and 18th century migration by a farmer's lonely son in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a 19th century underground railway journey by a gifted runaway slave. Each episode comes to bear on the lives of Grandville's current residents. Does every event, no matter how small or distant in the past influence all events that follow?… (more)

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