Book Review: Amherst
by William Nicholson
Simon & Schuster, 2015
Even if they can’t quite place the name, readers encountering the new novel Amherst will know the work of its author, William Nicholson. Not his novels, mind you, which have muddled along for ten years and more without ever peeking above the hedges of the lower mid-list, but rather for his screenplays to movies like 1993’s Shadowlands or 2000’s Gladiator or even last year’s Unbroken.
The dangers of this will be immediately apparent. Movie screenplays are exercises in the art – dubious, but still an art – of reduction. They pivot on very simple, primary-color points; they’ve had almost anything resembling actual complexity hammered out of them in favor of flagged lines, maudlin sentimentality, and easy, telegraphed conclusions. Whereas novels, at least of the type currently and rather annoyingly called “literary fiction,” deal in carefully poised ambiguities, complex emotional registers, and unresolved endings. It’s the height of modern cynical swagger for a writer to think he can easily step from the first type of writing to the second. In fact – as the startlingly unsuccessful screenwriting careers of writers from Fitzgerald on amply demonstrate – it’s almost impossible to do well. Habits encrust; shortcuts tempt.
This bedevils Amherst from the start. Half of the narrative is set in 1880s Amherst, Massachusetts, and centers around Mabel Loomis Todd, her husband Amherst College professor David, and the college’s treasurer, Austin Dickinson, the brother of Amherst’s semi-legendary recluse poet, Emily Dickinson. The other half is set in 2013 and tells the story of Alice Dickinson (the instant she first says “no relation,” every reader anywhere in the world is free to groan), a Londoner who comes to Amherst in order to research a screenplay about the illicit love affair between Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson – and promptly enters into an affair of her own, with married professor who’s just retired and signals his douchebag-rogue status by talking about his retired status in purely douchebag-rogue terms:
You mustn’t think amusement is trivial. It’s the polar opposite of boredom. Boredom is the loss of interest, the loss of appetite, the loss of desire. When we become bored, we begin to die. When we’re amused, we’re alive.
Immediate dangers, yes indeed: parallel illicit love affairs – a staple of Hollywood screenplays, but a patent, out-of-the-gate disappointment in a novel.
In the Mabel storyline, poor weird Emily hovers around the peripheries (and eavesdrops on the lovers’ hanky-panky while it’s happening on the living room settee), and in the Alice storyline, poor, weird Emily hovers around the peripheries in the form of her poems, scattered throughout the narrative. It’s all very smoothly done but so intensely programmatic that in even its most dramatic bits, a large part of your imagination will be working out which Hollywood actor would best play Austin.
There are good moments throughout; Nicholson is a very experienced writer, after all, and he’s selected a plot guaranteed to have up-beats. He has a fun time with Alice’s affair, for instance, letting us watch as the possibilities of it work their way past her mental defenses – as in the moment when she imagines herself having sex with Nick outside, in a park:
Despite her protestations she finds the idea lodges in her mind. She imagines it, in detail: his jacket thrown onto the carpet of leaves, her tight jeans tugged down her thighs, his buttons undone one by one. The trees, half undressed like herself, rising tall on either side. The rush and roar of the river.
And the Mabel sections of the book, obviously well-researched, are uniformly more interesting than the scenes set in 2013 (this clearly should have been a straight-up historical novel about Mabel’s affair, even though four hundred novels on that subject have already been written), particularly toward the end of the novel when Mabel, after some soul-searching after Emily’s death, has decided to collect her poems, transcribe them, and then embark on the quixotic mission of getting them published (a typical Boston editor languidly comments, “In my personal opinion, Miss Dickinson’s verses are devoid of true poetical qualities”).
Good moments of course don’t float an entire novel, and Nicholson knows that as well as anybody. Somewhere along the precisely-fitted seams of Amherst‘s two halves runs a fault-line, a persistent suspicion that this whole thing isn’t so much a lazy novel as it is an ambitious script treatment. In the time it’s taken you to read this review, 4.45 new novels about Emily and Mabel and Austin and David have been self-published by authors who don’t have Nicholson’s industry connections; if one or two of those novels were written without Hollywood in mind, perhaps they merit your attention first.