A Year of Wonders
In his new novel Heyday, Kurt Andersen admirably attempts not merely to evoke, but to retrieve, something that is perhaps irretrievable: the visceral feeling of what it must have been like to have been alive at the very dawn of modernity, when anything could happen and everything felt and looked new.
The novel takes place primarily in 1848, one of the most tumultuous and portentous years in human history, when revolutions and counter-revolutions convulsed Europe and South America, Karl Marx published the most inadvertently destructive book ever written, the Mexican-American war ended with the U.S. in possession of much of Mexico, and the mad California gold rush began.
But it wasn’t merely these events that defined 1848 as a special year, it was, as Andersen portrays it, the new or recently introduced technologies—or, rather, the sense of boundless possibility, fractured time and giddy disorientation that these marvelous inventions engendered.
The middle of the 19th century marked the first time in human history, after all, that human beings could view permanent images of events long past, send messages instantaneously across continents, and travel comfortably at speeds (50 miles an hour or more!) that, in prior years, would have been seen as resulting in derangement or death.
Andersen puts us right in the middle of this tumult, attempting to capture for us what it was like to encounter these new marvels: One character ascribes his reluctance to travel by rail to “surrendering his physical person to a machine, actually entering the thing and letting it fly him through space at ten times normal speed, (making) him feel as if he were intimate with ... an apparatus.”
On the surface, Heyday is the story of a small group of young people who, while never seeming anachronistic, also never fail to appreciate the time of wonders in which they find themselves. In some cases—as embodied by a fascinating character named Skaggs, who nearly manages to capture the very first photographs of heavenly bodies—these individuals actually create these marvels themselves.
In this ensemble narrative, the most prominent character is Benjamin Knowles, the scion of a wealthy English merchant banker who is caught up in the bloody February revolution that ended the French monarchy once and for all and, shortly thereafter, emigrates to the New World.
There, across a crowded restaurant in New York’s Astor House, he sees, and instantly falls in love with, a half-actress, half-prostitute named Polly Lucking. In this novel of Dickensian cadences and coincidences, he and Polly, along with Polly’s pyromaniac brother Duff, and Duff’s friend Skaggs, the celestial photographer who is also a journalist, pulp novelist and “daugerrian of fire” (he takes photographs of warehouse blazes), all come together and, over the course of this 620-page novel, find themselves living together in a proto-socialist gold-mining community in California.
But the journey to California is a long one, disrupted by Polly’s search for a utopian community in the West (i.e., the part of America we would now call the Midwest), her attempts to save a younger prostitute from a life of degradation, and Ben’s attempts to find Polly, after the two are separated by a sexual misunderstanding (Ben makes the mistake of characterizing the evident pleasure that Polly takes in sex by using the new-fangled word “nymphomaniac.”)
And, even as Ben, Skaggs, and Duff search for Polly, Ben in turn is hunted by a French soldier whose brother he accidentally killed during the French riots, and Duff is haunted by his guilt over the fires he started (many of which the unknowing Skaggs photographed), and by his traitorous behavior during the Mexican-American war.
Beginning in Paris and ending in California, various members of this ensemble also have fleeting encounters with actual historical figures, including a hilariously flatulent (and accurately rendered) Charles Darwin, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.
If all this sounds somewhat complicated, Andersen orchestrates it all masterfully. As he proved in his scintillating and somewhat underappreciated first novel, Turn of the Century, Andersen is one of America’s most talented novelists. He has clearly done a prodigious amount of research for Heyday, and virtually every page of this book is filled with memorable insights into the period, such as one character’s observation that “all successful colonial ventures were based on the commercialization of stimulants—coffee, cocoa, tobacco, opium, rum.”
A consistent theme in Heyday is the “tyranny of clock time.” The new telegraph devices might, Skaggs accurately prophesies, become common enough that “this funny new telegraphic style (would) become the ordinary way of writing and even of speech, every document and conversation pared and crushed and minimized.” There may be a knowing wink, somewhere in there, to Blackberry users, but Skaggs’ insight is historically accurate.
He is also believably prescient when he notes, “because watches in every pocket and clocks in every factory and railroad station had stimulated in people an acute awareness of time passing, that new awareness had in turn stimulated an unhappiness with the status quo, and the new demands for still-speeder progress.”
Unlike many historical novelists whose exposition tends to stick out like a sore thumb, Andersen manages to convey forgotten details of our past in a natural, unforced manner. His dialogue, too, is skillfully and convincingly rendered, and it is this quality, too often taken for granted, that more than any other distinguishes a believable fictional narrative from a stiff and uninvolving one.
If there is a fault in this truly impressive novel, it is the predictability and relative slowness of the—deliberately, one assumes—old-fashioned plot. (Plot was also the weakest aspect of the otherwise captivating Turn of the Century.) This is not one of those books that is impossible to put down and, in fact, needs to be put down every 200 pages or so.
The pursuit by the revenge-minded Frenchman of Benjamin Knowles, in particular, is a rough slog across England and America that takes far more time than it should, and ends far too abruptly. Andersen has created a marvelous mechanism that is very much worth reading, but one wishes that, without going so far as to employ a telegraphic style that “crushes and minimizes,” he nonetheless had taken into account the contemporary reader’s comfort with much-greater rates of speed than our 19th-century forebears.