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Book Review: The Steady Running of the Hour

By (May 21, 2014) No Comment

The Steady Running of the Hourthe steady running of the hour cover
By Justin Go
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Even if you didn’t know ahead of time that The Steady Running of the Hour were Justin Go’s debut novel, you might be able to guess it from the evidence on display. Debut novels, after all, like flatworms, have a fairly limited morphology: they all make some maidenlike gestures at postmodernity; they’re all more ambitious than the still-fledgling talents of their authors can support; and they all tend to overreach, probably out of nervousness. In other words, Go’s novel is practically a zoo display-quality example.

This isn’t necessarily an evil, of course; the exact same bursting, try-everything lunge for instant immortality that can make debut novels so embarrassing can also make them memorable, and sometimes even stunning (a classic case in point would be David Payne’s intensely realized Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, although Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves work equally well as more recent examples). It’s entirely natural for first-time authors to want to strike a flash, to stake out a large ambit of aesthetic territory, and it can be both annoying and revivifying to watch them do it.

Go’s debut strikes a flash, certainly. It’s a huge dual narrative: a panoramic historical novel unfolding in the first two decades of the 20th century and a jet-setting chase novel set in the last decade of the 20th century, with the two strands connected by the cleverly-presented Maguffin of an enigmatic inheritance. Plenty of debut novelists wouldn’t have attempted it, so even Go’s failures are to his credit.

In the 1990s, young American Tristan Campbell is contacted unexpectedly by a stereotypical snooty British law firm, and he’s informed that he might be the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance bequeathed nearly a century earlier by the renowned British WWI veteran and mountaineer Ashley Walsingham, who died trying to reach the summit of Everest in 1924. The snooty law firm is acting only on hints and rumors, but if Tristan can provide them with verifiable documentation of his descent from Walsingham, he stands to inherit – but according to the arcana of the will, Tristan has only a tiny window of weeks in order to make his claim, otherwise the inheritance gets scattered among a dozen charities and lost to him forever.

Tristan begins a leap-frogging document-search all over Europe, and Go follows that story and the story of Ashley Walsingham himself as he survives both the horrors of the Somme and the rigors of pre-modern extreme mountain-climbing. Both men have women in their lives – Tristan the alluring Mireille and Ashley the spirited Imogen, who challenges him at the Royal Geographical Society on the age-old question of why men climb mountains (don’t mind the absence of quotes – we mentioned maidenlike gestures at postmodernity, recall):

I can’t say I learned much, except that men always want to try the one thing they oughtn’t to. But then everyone already knows that. From the sound of it, these fellows spend so much time worrying about how they’ll climb a mountain that they never consider why they do it. Surely there’s more to climbing than just boasting rights? Perhaps you could explain it to me, Mr. Walsingham?

I doubt it.

I’d be grateful if you tried. Tell me, when a fellow climbs a mountain is it the danger he loves?

Ashley grimaces. – God no. It’s not so crass as that.

The adventure then?

Not at all. It isn’t so vulgar –

The sport? The competition?

He shakes his head. – Certainly not.

The mountains, then? Or what they hold?

That’s closer. But it’s not exactly that either.

At first, Walsingham doesn’t see the attraction in risking his life attempting to be the first person to reach the summit of Everest, but when he’s shown detailed photos, he begins to fall under the spell of the immense thing the Tibetans call “The Goddess Mother of the World”:

Everest was not a beautiful mountain, for she lacked proportion or airiness or symmetry, or any of the features that make peaks attractive. But what power she had. She was a brute, a colossal formation of rock and snow risen out of the tallest mountain range on earth, her broad-shouldered ridge running northeast and capped by a monumental summit pyramid. And she was an enigma. No European had ever reached the mountain’s high approaches …

Although we get the impression that Walsingham himself might have disagreed, it’s clear that he’s motivated by a quest for grandeur – an especially keen quest for him after his squalid and horrifying experiences in the war, where there were “a thousand ways to die”:

There are shells and mortars and canisters with shrapnel balls that lodge into supple flesh. You can get shrapnel in the face, the groin, anywhere, or your legs or arms blown off, or all at once. You can have your guts shredded, your arms cradling steaming intestines as they writhe out into the mud.

And Imogen, though a fairly weakly-drawn character, is moved by a similar desire for significance in life, against “an unholy world where human souls are decided through mean reckoning of the trajectories of bullets or the multiplication of diseased cells”:

It is the domain of dreams, Imogen continues, that is crafted on the scale of the human heart and constructed of the same materials, and for this reason feels warm and vivid and familiar even as it is strange. It is in the world of the night, she tells him, that we are at last set loose from the trivial and the crass, and left to seek what is truly worthy. Imogen says finally that in dreams neither distance nor even death can prevent the meeting of two hears of sufficient will, and surely this is the way our world ought to have been fashioned, and if it was not so fashioned she wants no part of it.

“It isn’t fair otherwise,” she insists. “It just wouldn’t be fair.”

This is very appealingly uncynical stuff, and The Steady Running of the Hour is suffused with it from stem to stern – indeed, it manages to save the book from its half-dozen flaws, which it would be crass to enumerate (but OK: 1) Go doesn’t weave his exposition so much as he bludgeons with it, 2) that research, though clearly extensive, is spotty – there are, in other words, the dreaded howlers, 3) Go displays just as much skill in dramatizing the chemistry between Walsingham and Imogen as that between Tristan and Mireille – and it’s zilch in both cases, 4) the contrivance of the will and the shrinking window of time is so old it creaks, 5) Tristan’s wanderings around Europe quickly devolve into an acrostic of train schedules, and most of all 6) Go’s self-conscious cleverness in his book’s final pages won’t exactly endear him to the readers patient enough to have got that far).

At one point Mireille, reflecting on the story of Ashley and Imogen, reflects, “Elles sont belles – Mais c’est une histoire triste” – and although she’s right, the book in which that story is embedded manages not to be sad at all; this fat, sumptuous, hyper-energetic debut is, instead, hugely fun to read.

An extremely good debut novel, in other words.