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Review of The Village

David Mamet has created a disturbing novel, without false or contrived plots, and a small but complete world that demonstrates the failure of human society.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; " class="Body ">BOOK REVIEWS

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">THE VILLAGE
By David Mamet
New York: Little, Brown, 1994. 238 pp. Cloth $21.95.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">In the second scene of David Mamet's novel Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">, the character Henry, as yet unnamed, considers where to place a bolt so that he can find it again. A second level of thought suddenly submerges the first: "I am sick of this life, he thought. The more I know of myself the more I despise myself—for I see what I am, and, yet, am powerless to act to make it better" (p. 8). This passage explicates the style and concerns of the book. Dark thoughts arrive unexpectedly. The patterns and physical activities of daily life in a community are tenuous, virtually desperate. The overlapping, contradictory thoughts of the characters are presented in quotations, as if indistinguishable from speech. "What? she said; and he looked at her and realized he had been speaking" (p. 115). The characters live most fully in private fantasy, in self-made drama, and in facile pursuit of first principles. Beneath these preoccupations accumulates the reality of isolation in community. Everyone is ultimately stranded in self-consciousness, and speech evaporates to nothing or cuts like barbwire.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">T Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">he Village, Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; "> divided into twelve sections covering roughly a year, is set in a remote New England locale. The unidentified town could as well be located in Hemingway's upper Michigan. The characters are predominantly men, which is appropriate to the novel's focus on hunting, guns, and most important, the natural world. Animals, and the men's study of animals, are central to the book. Hunting is a means of temporarily escaping human community and pursuing something purer. Mamet presents instinct as wisdom, and the men are separated from both by their suffocating self-awareness. Animals, in obvious contrast, are instinctual and free to act. "'Now, that's wisdom. Y'see? For they do not think of it, or aren't aware of it, or I don't think they are. However, they act on it"' (p. 61).

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The men track birds, "pattern" deer, fish, walk with dogs, and discuss the inexplicable kestrel chicks on the road, all the while hoping that an understanding of the natural world might move them nearer to spiritual wholeness. Other than nature, only the small acts of the day, properly performed, sustain them—splitting logs, fixing an unbalanced clock, sharpening a knife. "Some things are like that, he thought. If they were not, how could we live our lives? We are not God . . ." ( p. 98). The men recognize the speciousness of their flawed understanding; the characters attempt to act with care and precision, to invest process and efficiency with meaning, but the subtext of their acts is fear: "And then he was frightened, for it had been proved to him that every certainty concealed its opposite; and a goddess more wrathful and immediate than Nemesis watched for the least sign of assurance on the part of Man" (p. 56).

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The setting of Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village, Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; "> and the attempt to locate meaning through the natural world, owes a conspicuous debt to Hemingway, but the novel's sensibility is derived from Mamet's other father, Chekhov. Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; "> has little plot in the traditional sense. When a rare dramatic action does occur—an angry young woman mysteriously disappears, a boy falls to his death during a tryst at the quarry, a marriage explodes—these take place, in Chekhovian fashion, off stage. We are left with the circular thoughts of the characters, crowding out the action, crowding out each other. The pauses here are filled with interior clamor, with fear and anger and confusion and hatred. It is the clamor of the tragicomic human race, lost without sustaining myths.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">David Mamet has created a disturbing novel, without false or contrived plots, and a small but complete world that demonstrates the failure of human society. The method of that demonstration is elliptical. When characters do reluctantly speak, the language is painfully incomplete, confusing, irrelevant. Often, the dialogue borders on gibberish and is typically far less coherent than the dramas the people live in their heads. Storytelling is the salient exception to this erratic speech. A practiced piece of language—usually in the form of a sermon or tall tale—is delivered as, essentially, monologue, which removes it from the realm of dialogue and reciprocal communication. And even story, the only fluid speech in the novel, is recognized by its participants as an obfuscation of the "real."

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The ellipsis is the primary punctuation in Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">. Characters strain and suffer under the impossibility of articulation. A man begins to tell his wife a story of what happened that day, then immediately regrets the attempt. The experience is pure only when unspoken. He cannot do it. The experience is ruined, the present moment torture. Each person lives within his or her isolation, and although the isolation is a prison, it is only there that one's thoughts, feelings, conceits, may flourish. This, Mamet suggests, is the unbreachable paradox of human relations and human life. "He heard footsteps on the stairs, and bridled, as if in disgrace, as if to escape discovery of a sentimental thought; and his mind searched for a comment or observation that might, as he thought, divert suspicion, as if his wife could read his thoughts" (p. 26). The character is Henry again, although his identity hardly matters. Mamet frequently refers to the characters only by pronouns. Everyone's plight is about the same and about as dismal. One man is distinguishable because he wears a patch on his jacket, another because he's a bit older, et cetera. Even rare affection between a man and woman amounts to, effectively, little more than shared suffering against forces neither understood nor manageable. "Why do people not kill themselves? He felt his arms around her" (p. 175).

Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">is a novel of devastating juxtapositions. Each human conceit is systematically undercut. The discussions of God are unconvincing. Mustn't there be some reason, even if it is not ours to understand? The novel's tone answers a resounding "No." The language of the book is highly fragmented, often difficult to piece together into full ideas. This is Mamet's intention. The author's extravagant contractions and distracting comma usage are also part of a twisting, faltering language which strives to convey real experience, the smoke and mirrors beneath what we name our lives, without destroying it. Garamond, 'Garamond'; font-style: italic; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">The Village Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; "> is a profound novel, perhaps a brilliant one; many scenes are excruciating in their fragile details. Ruin is inevitable—the fish jumps the hook, the cloth tears, the compass drops. There is no escape for the living.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">In section ten of the novel, near the end of winter, Mamet constructs a harrowing sequence involving Henry. While skiing in the woods near his house, the man sees his confidence puncture, his hard-fought composure disintegrate in moments against the suddenly dark forest and falling temperature. He scrambles to save himself. His human reasoning is pathetically inadequate, his animal instinct nonexistent. He needs heat and direction. Finally, by chance, he finds the road that will lead him back. "Down below, far below, he saw the bend; and below the bend he saw his house, and the yellow light in the kitchen, and the shadow which was his wife, moving down there, cooking and talking on the telephone" (p. 210). And yet, somehow, the appearance of his home is ominous; his wife is a shadow. He approaches the contrivances that constitute his life. Having failed the animal world and having been failed by the world of men, Henry is glad just to be alive. At the clarifying moment, nothing of an inner life remains but a will for survival.

Garamond, 'Garamond'; line-height: 1.08; vertical-align: 0.000000em; ">GAY BREWER
Middle Tennessee State University