Sunday, August 30, 2009

Duncan guides readers through "A Day A Night and A Day"

In his novel A Day A Night and A Day Glen Duncan bookends a fiery love affair with two equally combustible eras. Selina and Augustus, the enticing protagonists, fall in love in the heat of the 1960s. Their relations are startling and carnal. The sight of them together in public turns heads; Augustus is half black and Selina is a white woman of wealth. The duo alarms its audience and the couple is very aware of this effect and its power has a channel in their relationship.

Duncan situates the reader in an alternative timeline almost four decades later, in the wake of 9/11. Augustus is being tortured for information in a sterile cell by a man called Harper. Initially, the reader does not know what could have occurred that would deliver Augustus to this fate. There is the suggestion that the corporeal abuse he suffers is connected to Selina, but the ties do not reveal themselves until later in the narrative.

The tone of Duncan’s narrative is declarative. His sentences firmly direct the reader’s understanding of the events that unfold; he leaves wiggle room for reactions but not speculation. Duncan handles the seething tensions of the 60s with grace, giving voice to the passions and fears that surrounded new liberties and new fears.

Augustus and Selina’s love story is passionate and full of the intensity of youth. Their strong attraction to one another is complicated by Selina’s relationship with her brother, Michael. He is a soldier in Vietnam and his reasons for going, she believes, are at least partly because of her. Selina’s relationship with Michael was at one point physical, and while she has resolved to bury that dynamic, Michael is unwilling to do the same. The vengeful ex-lover is a common figure in literature and the incestuous feature is a difficult twist to add. The immediate, inherent reaction to this revelation is revulsion and leads to feelings aversion toward Selina, a character formerly revered. The author does not condone the violation of boundaries between brother and sister, but neither is the breach condemned. He shapes the reader’s sentiments, without force, so that the incident resonates as an element of Selina’s past as she wishes it to. It is a blemish but not a disfigurement.

Duncan examines the dynamics between aggressor and victim with as much attention as he does the attractions between lovers. He recognizes the opposing scenarios as fundamentals of human nature and addresses them equally.

Harper is the worst kind of interrogator. He expresses sincere interest in Augustus. He is cheerful and purposefully pauses between interrogations to talk freely and deeply with his prisoner about the state of the world in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of his theses are valid, cold in their lucidity. Harper’s occupation does not draw him as far beyond reality as the reader would like to believe such an occupation demands. He thrives on the energy his job requires and approaches it without sensation. Harper sincerely likes Augustus, but when he arrives at the point when it is required of him to shoot him in the head, he would do so; and he would think it a shame, but he would execute him without hesitation nonetheless.

Duncan refrains from gratuitous explanations of the corporeal pain Augustus is made to suffer. His descriptions do not resemble the scenes in an episode of 24. The author is precise in the moments he reveals about pain and pleasure. He respects them and their effect is communicated without obscenity.

In the terrain of both love and hate, Duncan is an excellent guide. He does not need to magnify the strength of either; his clear presentation and direct prose are sufficient.

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