I would like to say I very much enjoyed Lin Enger's new novel, "Undiscovered Country." Sadly, I can't, and quite frankly I'm a bit baffled. The plot is gripping (a rural Hamlet, to an extent), the writing is clearly not the work of a novice, and the author has an excellent pedigree. He has numerous awards and grants, plus a sibling -- Leif Enger, author of "Peace Like a River" and the new "So Brave, Young and Handsome" -- who is a bestselling author.
But the book left me cold, perhaps because in a narrative driven by acts of passion, the words themselves are studied and academic. As a writer, Enger takes very few chances, and what might have been a compelling story of adolescent confusion, family turmoil and revenge gets a rather prosaic rendering. Very little heat emanates from these pages, and it's too bad, because the story is prime material.
Aspiring to be a bold, modern reinvention of Shakespeare's tragedy, "Undiscovered Country" falls short, simply lifting a few of the play's details and shedding little new light on a classic story. Seventeen-year-old Jesse Matson accompanies his father, Harold, on a November deer-hunting expedition near their home in northern Minnesota. They separate, and when he next finds his dad, Harold is lying dead of what looks to be a self-inflicted rifle wound. Harold's ghost appears to Jesse, telling him it was Clay (Harold's brother) who did the deed, most likely out of lust for Harold's wife, Genevieve (Clay and Genevieve; Claudius and Gertrude: Get it?).
Enger writes in short, simple sentences that I suspect are meant to be spare and elegant, but read flat and choppy: "We'd stayed in our stands until ten or ten-thirty. Then he came wandering over and asked if I'd like to share a thermos of coffee. I climbed down and together we lay against the tree trunk, the sun on our faces, our legs stretched out in the dead grass. It was unseasonably warm that day. We laid our guns beside us." He also neglects quotation marks when people are speaking, a device that quickly moves from merely pretentious to annoyingly tiresome.
His imagery is odd and self-conscious ("Above us, the sky, brilliant and densely packed, was like a snowstorm caught on fast film, each star a cold crystal and the moon a bright scythe.") and he never believably finds young Jesse's voice. "What there is to tell about the rest of the night and the morning that followed won't take long, because in truth I remember little. I was tired and deeply perplexed," the teenage narrator says. "The snow had turned to rain, as I've said, and the rain fell hard. It beat upon the windshield in hammerbursts." But it just doesn't ring true; even allowing for a certain amount of style -- not all kids talk like, omigod, you know? -- Enger has given his protagonist a self-awareness and power to express his feelings that's hard to buy. With the possible exception of Holden Caulfield, no teenager since Hamlet himself has been that articulate.
It must be said that this is not some unreadable piece of tripe. Enger knows his way around a sentence, the plot is well-enough woven that I kept reading to see if Jesse ever took his revenge, and Enger's portrayal of the ghost, dazed and baffled, was particularly vivid. I was simply less emotionally engaged than I wanted to be. I hope in his next novel Enger will be less cautious and create something more immediate and urgent, written more from his gut and less from his head.
Peter Moore is an actor and director. His production of "The Count of Monte Cristo" is currently playing on the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat.