Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Robert Bly

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 996 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Bly

SOURCE: "Westward Ho the New Age Covered Wagon," in The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 13.

An American poet, critic, essayist, and editor, Bly is a prominent figure in contemporary American letters. In the review below, he examines Allende's treatment of American history in The Infinite Plan.

Isabel Allende moves in this book [The Infinite Plan] into new territory for her fiction: the site is North America, her main character is an American man, and while describing with verve the last two generations of a North American family, the novel doubles as a cameo history of the United States. As World War II is ending, Charles Reeves, a tent preacher, is driving his family, with several retainers, westward in a kind of New Age covered wagon, bringing news of a harmonious universe that unfolds according to some Infinite Plan (hence the title). We recall that the United States, unlike most South American nations, began in a swirl of religious teaching, persistent, unorthodox and often slightly dotty. The traveling spiritual van, reminiscent of Conestoga wagons as well as Dust Bowl caravans, makes its way at last to Los Angeles, where the whole family settles in the barrio. The two children, Judy and Gregory, grow up speaking Spanish as well as English, a detail that seems to reflect, justly, the increasing presence of Latin culture.

The Infinite Plan well translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, follows the life of Gregory Reeves, the preacher's son, closely. It puts forward disasters as appalling as those in An American Tragedy, but the telling has changed, moved under the influence of South American magic realism firmly away from the horse-and-dog prosaicism of the Dreiserians and past the more contemporary minimalists whose writing suggests windup poodles walking around the room. Ms. Allende's paragraphs are like wooden barrels filled with whistles, weather vanes, valentines, stuffed roosters, dueling pistols, Prince Albert tobacco cans, toy locomotives, stethoscopes, firecrackers, heroin needles, suicide notes of aging lovers and medieval maps. Her characters get into more trouble on one page than our uncles in their entire lives.

Ingesting all this trouble, we can't be sure in our bones that we know the interior life of any one of her characters. But we grasp as at a state fair the immense variety of human desires, stupidities and vulgarities. And occasionally, wonderful images come up out of the barrel. Of Gregory's wife and his mother, Nora, Ms. Allende writes: "Samantha could not bear her mother-in-law; she had never perceived any of her virtues and thought of her as a weird old woman who would drive a turtle out of its mind."

Though her protagonist is male, she does not scant her female characters. Carmen, daughter of a barrio patriarch, a woman wild-spirited and inventive, lives through catastrophes to become Tamar, the wealthy promoter of her own line of handmade jewelry; Olga, the fortuneteller who travels on the wagon, is a cornucopia of psychic advice, astrological knowledge, sexual generosity and abortion services. Ms. Allende is particularly fine in catching the mood of the Berkeley Gregory studies and their lives in the 60's: "The People's Republic of Berkeley was by now under his skin; he liked losing himself in streets swarming with swamis in cotton tunics, women with the air of Renaissance ghosts, sages with no ties to this earth, revolutionaries without a revolution, street musicians, preachers, lunatics, peddlers, craftsmen, police and criminals."

Ms. Allende sums up Gregory Reeves this way: "Like the weeds in the front yard of his house, he had grown without water or care, surrounded by the metaphysical madness of his father, the stony silences of his mother, the tenacious animosity of his sister and the violence of the barrio, suffering because of the color of his skin and his bizarre family, divided always between the call of a sentimental heart and that combative fever, that savage energy, that made his blood boil and his judgment evaporate."

A member of the Clinton generation, he does serve as a soldier in the war in Vietnam, and we hear much of those years. Ms. Allende's writing is not as convincing in the Vietnam section as it is elsewhere, but the novel does not turn away from the frightfulness of the war or the long shadow it continues to throw. Gregory becomes a high-priced lawyer and brings disaster on his wives and children. The greedy high living of the 80's got into gear, Ms. Allende suggests, as an attempt to cover up the country's shame over the Vietnam defeat. In her novel the lives of the men go into slowly expanding explosions during the 80's; in those explosions, their own children are thrown into the air. Concealing shame does not work, and Gregory's life contains more of it at the end of the decade than at the start.

And the 90's? What will happen to the hard-driven men of the 80's? One night, shortly after his mother dies, when the other dead in his life visit Gregory, "he lost any ability to hold himself together; he was not himself but that unbearable suffering, that tortured jellyfish spreading across the room, seeping into every corner, one single open wound." He breaks off from his workaholism and settles down to face the mess of his life and the mess he has brought to the lives of the people around him. His son is so hyperactive and unpleasant that no school will keep him. He takes him into his house, and works with him and as much as he can with his drug-addicted daughter.

We could say that The Infinite Plan is not as elegant as The House of the Spirits and less assured than the Eva Luna books, but it has more vision and ambition. Ms. Allende's ambit is large; she offers pity and terror. Her novel, more the house of bodies than of spirits but informed by spirits, calls for grief over the damage the United States has inflicted on itself during the last decades.

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This section contains 996 words
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