A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston

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A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Newfoundland austerity meets Vanderbilt exorbitance in Johnston's peculiarly blended tale of two university friends whose lives converge over an orphan boy at a North Carolina mansion. A well-realized, playful but scattered work of historical fiction.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099572039

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Landish Druken is a great hulk of a man who lumbers through his hometown of St John's, Newfoundland. Although he thinks of himself as a writer, he has never written a word he didn't feel compelled to burn, and everyone knows him as the wayward son of accomplished sealing captain Abram Druken. Landish escaped to study literature at Princeton, where he met best friend Padgett 'Van' Vanderluyden, the 'dud' son of an industrial tycoon and a rumoured homosexual, but he broke his promise to join his father's sealing empire on his return in 1893, and now lives in poverty and disgrace.

Penury only becomes more acute when Landish adopts Deacon, an orphan boy whose father died in Captain Druken's service. This unlikely pair – the burly bachelor and the scrawny waif – eke out an existence in a tiny attic, shrugging off the threats of starvation, frostbite and eviction with determined silliness and wordplay, but soon Landish turns to Van for help. The former friends – once the toast of Princeton with their own literary club, 'Lotus Land': a decadent off-campus retreat where members penned puns and witticisms over cigars, cognac and caviar – haven't corresponded since Van hid his cheating by having Landish expelled. Now Landish has no choice but to petition the millionaire acquaintance who once betrayed him, and their lives and dreams will collide in unexpected ways at Van's opulent North Carolina mansion, 'Vanderland.'

Johnston was inspired by the story of the Vanderbilt clan, one of the wealthiest families in America at that time, and takes the adapted surname from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. In fact, both Wharton and Henry James appear briefly in the novel as opinionated guests at Vanderland, with James even offering Landish some priggish advice on authorship: 'One either is or is not a writer. You can aspire until you expire, it won't make any difference.'

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the novel is the constant wordplay: it is clear that Johnston delights in language, and so has many of his characters engage in punning, malapropisms and repartee (one plot point even hangs on anagrams), bringing to mind Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea. For instance, Landish calls himself 'more of a startist than an artist. I was once a starving artist but am now a raving startist.' Here is another playful exchange, between Landish and Stavely, one of his fellow Vanderland tutors at their bachelor quarters, 'The Blokes': 'To eat with such relish and yet feel so hellish.' / 'To start with gestation and end with prostration.'

A World Elsewhere might be most reminiscent of the style of John Irving, with its combination of quaint folksy mores, unusual characters and names, and recurring 'props' like Landish's father's white seal fur hat and the sketched self-portrait his mother (Genevieve, who always wrote her name 'Gen of Eve') drew while she was pregnant with him. Yet the novel lacks the focus of Irving's or Johnston's previous works of epic historical fiction, which are generally rooted in one place. Unlike Johnston's 1998 masterpiece, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which single-mindedly tracks the history of Newfoundland through confederation with Canada and the tenure of its first premier, this novel is composed of so many different fragmentary stories that it does not hold together as a work of art.

Indeed, the belaboured plot is difficult to encapsulate because it has so many disparate stages and allusions: it begins as a friendly tale of quirky characters having coastal adventures (as in We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen or Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House), morphs into the bitter chronicle of a starving writer (like Knut Hamsun's Hunger), and eventually becomes the tragicomedy of a rich recluse, with Van resembling the title character of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and Deacon taking on the role of the lowly orphan allowed to consort with the Big House's privileged daughter, as in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. All these echoes make for a rich literary stew, but it may be a case of too many ingredients spoiling the whole.

It is as if Johnston could not decide what sort of book he wanted to write, so mashed several together. The novel suffers as a result, though its characters remain well-drawn and compelling. Perhaps the most memorable is Van, with his compulsion to flee his tragic past by creating a luxurious hideaway: 'He thinks so little of the world in which the rest of us must live that he has built an alternative one, a counter-world called Vanderland. Vanderland should be called Wonderland.' Indeed, Vanderland's motto is 'There is a world elsewhere' – a place out of time where normal rules of morality and cause-and-effect seem not to apply. By the conventions of narrative focus, however, Johnston's novel fails to immerse readers in a fully coherent fictional world.

For more homosocial university camaraderie (though in a very different setting), try The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. The sober maritime atmosphere of memoir Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush bears some similarity to the early Newfoundland chapters here. And one could certainly do worse than return to that classic story of American decadence and decline, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.

Buy A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston at Amazon.co.uk

Buy A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston at Amazon.com.


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