There's a line in a play -- which one, I wish I knew -- that reads, "Sometimes good is better than great." Think of James Joyce's "Ulysses," a literary, artistic, even architectural masterpiece, affirming at once the beauty and sadness of life in some of the more beautiful passages known to the English language. It is also something that most people find impenetrable without another book or a college course to explain it. Not to mention the psychic weight that adheres to all Great Works.
"Falling Sideways," Thomas Kennedy's second novel to be published in the United States (an American, he lives and writes in Denmark), is free from such greatness. There are no great people in this book, just realistic ones; no great descriptive passages, just balanced and true observations. There is also no great, unresolved passion, just an unconflicted love for the city where it was written. It is not a shallow book, but it is light reading. In fact, it is full of light, especially the changing, gentle light of Copenhagen.
To whom this Copenhagen belongs is one of the book's questions. A corporation nicknamed "the Tank" is the stage where this drama plays out, and Kennedy niftily swivels around a lot of deadly dull research by pulling the delightful, Kafka-esque trick of having nobody really know what the Tank actually does. The womanizing and hapless mid-level employee Harald Jaeger, for example, doesn't dare to ask, and only knows his life is a flurry of e-mails and meetings, the purpose of which seems to be to make the people outside of the meeting room anxious about what's going on inside it.
If the book had a central character, it would be Frederic Breathwaite -- like Kennedy, a foreigner from the States -- whose basic decency is buttressed by his love for his wife, his son and the city of Copenhagen. There are other characters, all imperiled by the relentless, shark-like will of CEO Martin Kampman. Kampman is the grasping, untrammeled reach of corporate greed personified. His plans for his employees include not just the ax, but the ax with as few benefits as possible. My city, he thinks on his early morning jog. Mine.
Thomas has an ear and eye for modern life. He knows how neighborhoods gentrify, how kids stay in lousy apartments for "street cred"; he knows how women long for children after their career has used up the time of their unquestioned fertility, and most of all he knows Copenhagen. It's not one of the great cities of Europe, like Florence or Paris, but it is a civilized place, with jazz bars and cafes, parks and lakes, areas of civic loveliness. Most of all, it is Kennedy's city, and the people in it are likewise his by virtue of affection. It's also, now, with this second installment in his Copenhagen Quartet, a place I want to keep visiting.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."