Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ben Ehrenreich - "Ether" (2011)

More literature by living people!  I first came into contact with Ehrenreich's writing in the pages of Bomb, which published his short story 'Boys' in its Fall 2012 issue. This story spoke to me in a way similar to Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles. There was no specific plot, but strong characters within interesting situations created what I call an emergent theme. An emergent theme happens when the scenes and/or plot of a story don't build in a direct manner to anything, but as a whole they convey something. Sort of like the joke about a Monet painting: up close (or in its integral parts) it's a big old mess, but when you view the painting as a whole it has meaning.

So I added Ehrenreich's novel Ether to my late winter/early spring reading list. Just finished it a week or so ago, and I was disappointed to find that the power of the short story was not to be found in this novel length work. The style and quality of writing is very much the same, but it feels as though Ehrenreich simply doesn't need a canvas as large as a novel despite the fact that, at 183 pages, Ether barely qualifies as a novel.

Too much of the book is spent introducing characters and jumping between their stories. This kaleidoscopic approach could be enthralling, except that Ehrenreich does not develop any of his characters at all for a good 100 pages. They remain two-dimensional vignettes without any sense of how they will fit together. Could this part of the point? I suppose, but it renders his novel uninteresting and directionless. If it is the point, he did not need 100 pages to convey it. In fact, the only reason I continued reading during the middle half of the novel was that I liked Ehrenreich's prose.

By the time the characters started coming together and I understood what the character of the stranger was, I have to admit I was reading to get to the end. While my attention was not as acute as it should have been as a reader, this ultimately is the author's fault because he failed to set the proper pace. More importantly, I did not find much substance in the last third of the novel in terms of what Ehrenreich did with his premise. There was simply no pay-off to merit the long set-up.

The novel is peppered with interesting devices, such as the omnipresent TV cameras that suggest something about what Ehrenreich is dealing with in Ether. I also liked how the author made himself one of the characters and placed himself in discussions with one of the characters he created. Again, this related to the emergent theme. However, none of this - or the novel itself - ever really went anywhere especially interesting or powerful, and so these devices came off as gimmicks and not the evocative elements they could have been.

I still came away thinking Ehrenreich's a talented writer, as his craftsmanship is plain. However, such skill must be placed behind subject matter and characters that have greater depth or meaning. Otherwise, an author runs the risk of writing a long greeting card: nicely worded but ultimately not deep, relevant, or memorable.

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