When asked what the book I’m currently reading is about, providing an answer is usually not difficult. I can often bring up specific topics as well as general themes, and explain the writing style used to evoke an atmosphere or illustrate a point. Sometimes this leads to a conversation about said topic or theme, which inevitably means putting the book down as I wonder why I choose to read in public—and interruptible—places. This has not been my experience with Going. When asked what it’s about, all I could say was that I wasn’t entirely sure, but it’s very good, and then I’d return to reading uninterrupted.
The back cover description will tell you that it’s about many things, all of which are true in their own way, but they don’t begin to tell the story. Truth be told, it’s simply a chronicle of five people (“characters” would be demeaning) in Granada forming and dissolving relationships with each other as they go. But within this simple premise, Oderman has borne an excellent achievement rendered with skill and subtlety. When reading a narrative as good as this, you wonder how you put up with run-of-the-mill prose.
The people who inhabit this book exhibit both noble and questionable qualities, and while Oderman by no means wishes to render for us a morally relativistic atmosphere, the protagonists and villains are impressive in their fullness and their smallness. They’re great characters because they’re not great, appealing for their imperfections as well as their personalities’ endowments, memorable for their intricacy and individuality. Characters are experienced through an appropriate balance of episodic evidence, mental rumination, and third-person narrator intervention. The result is a multifaceted and complete portrayal of character that doesn’t waver through the novel, even when the plot kicks in. Oderman never forgets the souls of his story, keeping them alive and interesting throughout, be they dying poet, seductive antique faker, or transgender beggar child.
Perhaps the soul of this soulful book comes from its superb telling of relationships. The transience of the title is reflected in the bonds the characters form: as they’re all in different points in their lives, what a relationship to another means can be entirely different for the two involved. The accounts of these relationships illuminate the wonderful and maddeningly frustrating element of human bonding: the inherent mystery of what we and our actions mean to others. We’re all going somewhere; upon encountering and sharing with another, the question becomes where we go from here. If drawn in by this mystery, the reader has no choice but to surrender to Oderman’s dark, silky voice, shying away from all distractions to delve deeper into the lives of these men and women.
Oderman writes in a poetic and elusive style which is tantalizing, smooth, and rich. It’s intelligent minus the wordiness, sultry minus the messiness, sharp and incisive minus the barbs. In dialogue as well as narration, he speaks more than he says. And through all of it, there’s a curious beauty:
“For as long as Cy had known Granada he’d loved this place best. Here life was not so furtive but made a little display of desire. Long looks and shy glances, bread in open hands, drinking and the ritual of tea. Writers bent over their notebooks: he had been one of them. Nighthawks by day. Pickpockets. Vegetables in stacked boxes on street corners. Drunks. Scholars making their kind of sense of it. Artists too. A black dog sniffing the signs, tail up. Housewives and husbands. Cy hunched over his cane and walked down Caldereria Nueva, saying goodbye. Everything washed in light. Faces clear and innocent. The walls, the cobbles, alive.”
Perhaps the secret of this novel that refuses to be put down is the sense of life present through every single aspect of the writing, both in all the technical mechanisms and the layers of meaning. The pacing, the diction, the plot, the monologue and dialogue: all are cohesive, an achievement nothing short of remarkable. Just like the above account of Granada, Going combines the infinite realm of the individual with the infinite universe he lives in.