- Imagination is Everything
"Part Mafia murder mystery, part novel of ideas, but most of all a love story" is how the inside front cover blurb begins to characterize this seventh novel by the famous literary critic turned writer of experimental fictions, Frank Lentricchia. Hank Morelli is the narrative focus, as the novel begins and ends with him giving his very first seminar based on his dissertation on Antonioni's films, especially L'Avventura (1960), and delivering the opening words of his last lecture to a large auditorium filled with family, friends, colleagues, students, and the general public, only to fall face first off the stage onto the flagstone floor, "not granted the time...to improvise upon his dying."
In between, as the blurb continues, Hank "embarks on an unlikely romance with a Wendy's cashier" and "is also drawn into the mystery of his grandfather's underworld connections and tempted by his department chair and his department chair's mysterious girlfriend to take part in a monstrous film project they are planning." The heart of the novel, though, really is the love story between Jen the cashier and Hank, as they respond to the accumulating blows of time, with Antonioni's cinematic art of the image fighting tragically against time as their inspiration and the model for this novel's fusion of form and theme.
Appropriately, scenes from L'Avventura and its production grace the cover and first pages of the book (SUNY has produced a strikingly rich-looking book), with the focus upon Monica Vitti and her exquisite beauty and particularly it's effect upon Antonioni himself in one inside shot. As Antonioni is to Vitti, the creator in awe of his muse, so the novel's two sections named L'Avventura, in which the three plots come together and part, testify to the author's imagination of that awe of his chosen model.
There is the expected but effectively done satire at the academy's expense, as the title of Morelli's dissertation, "The Crisis of Temporality in the Cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni," suggests, and that of his shady department chair's famous book, The Pornography of Everyday Life: Notes on the Structure of Postmodern Beauty, underscores. The focus of vision, however, is the poignancy and humor, at one's own expense, that the process of aging enforces. In the final pages, Morelli faces two anxiety-ridden concerns as he prepares to deliver his last lecture (in a send-up of that new genre of academic narcissism): whether or not to send last messages to his loved ones and how to rid himself of that "unspeakable shuffling gait" he has recently developed. The latter concern is paramount as the moment of going on stage approaches inexorably. There follows a description of Morelli's rehabiliation of his walk that any aging person will recognize as the real truth of the so-called golden years:
Morelli is determined, starting this morning, to practice and recover walking in the manner of a younger person. Correct that disgraceful lean from the waist, that drooping upper torso—a mark of decrepitude, especially unsightly in a man of your height—and with self-conscious effort forge the semblance of youthful posture in the smithy of desire. Whenever walking—even if—especially if—there is no chance of being observed, as in the privacy of your solitary widower's home, never let your guard down: lift the knees, but do not exaggerate the lift or risk qualifying for membership in one of those high-stepping college marching bands. Cultivate naturalness as an art of walking. Because the senior years require—beyond botox, facelifts, tummy tucks and neck tightening—the labor of imagination. Because in the senior years—you should, by now, have long known this—imagination is everything, and art must supplant nature.
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The shifts in point of view—first person, third person limited, apparent omniscience, back to third person limited (as above)—are masterfully handled for each...