Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Lost Constitution

The Lost Constitution
By William Martin
Forge Books
Reviewed by Quillhill

July seems a good month to read about America. We chose the newest novel by William Martin, The Lost Constitution, because of our interest in the American Revolution, but the story begins with a set-up in the present time: a concerted attempt to strike down the Second Amendment to the Constitution. A potential "massacre" has just been averted, and a self-righteous Congresswoman intends to use it as a springboard for legislation to repeal the Second Amendment. Why? She says,

And the massacre would have been perpetrated by weapons bought as legally and in some cases as easily as you or I would buy a dozen roses.
Mr. Martin's normal structural style is to tell a contemporary tale in tandem with a progressive tale of historical fiction. With a tight transitional sentence, we are taken back to 1787 and introduced to Will Pike. This impetuous youth finds himself drawn into association with farmers and rabble-rousers who are planning to march on the local armory in the action that we now know as Shays' Rebellion. While his older brother becomes an active participant in the uprising, Will prefers to use his intellect to affect change. He becomes an assistant to one of the New England delegates to the Constitutional Convention, where he is entrusted with a preliminary draft of the Constitution on which several delegates have written their thoughts concerning a Bill of Rights. Will tells his brother about the draft, who steals it, he claims, to save the country by making it public, but who really only seeks to sell it for an easy profit. From then on, in the past and the present, the novel becomes a quest best described later by another character:

What I wouldn't give to know what the Founding Fathers thought about all this change.
Back in the present we follow the main protagonists Peter Fallon and his lady Evangeline Carrington as they try to track down the legendary draft. As they drive down the road, some authors might have Evangeline turn the rear-view mirror, or flip down the visor, to check her makeup, and then describe to the reader the reflection that she sees--tired and boring and, usually, meaningless. Unless there is some significance to a certain part of a character's appearance, there does not exist any necessity to describe her. A reader will always supply for any character a mental image based on personal experience. So we liked how Mr. Martin presented this bit of description:

She turned to him and a strand of blond hair caught in one of her earrings. She brushed it back, and he thought she looked as good in her forties as she had in her twenties....
No fireworks here, just simple solid writing.
Though Mr. Martin manages the switches rather well, he takes great liberties with point-of-view. Every so often he stretches the limited point-of-view of a character; other times he adopts an omniscient point-of-view. Then there are passages that, upon close reading, simply make no sense, as when we are seeing things through Peter's eyes, and we read:

If Peter had been thinking about it, the neighborhood would have reminded him of South Boston. ... But Peter was thinking of putting distance between himself and the guy in the blue blazer.
Why tell us at all what is not happening? Why put the reader inside the head of a character, and then add things of which the character has no knowledge? These liberties are not jarring, but one thinks the novel could just as well have been executed with strict adherence to the limited point-of-view that predominates. Both the modern and historical stories are told immediately in the present, not by a narrator reviewing the proceedings and retelling the history, but there are occasional times when Mr. Martin jumps ahead, telling the reader what is going to happen before it does. This takes the form of a description of what a character is about to say, or the reaction to what a character is about to say, before the character says it. Or there are passages like this:

Enos ushered George to the table by the fireplace, beneath a menagerie of stuffed New Hampshire animal heads, and introduced him to two men who would have a greater impact on his fortunes than any he had ever met: Daniel Saunders and son Charles, members of the logging aristocracy and the New England aristocracy, too.
Again, the predominant point-of-view makes these projections unsettling.

This 512-page novel is overpopulated with named characters, numbering somewhere around 130; a whopping 22 are introduced in Chapter 13. Amazon now reports statistical information on some books, and we learned that only 9% of all books have more characters than this novel. It becomes impossible to keep them all straight, and while many of them represent a link in the lineage of the Pike family, too many of them don't matter enough to have a name. Once an author begins to control point-of-view, the task of paring down seemingly vital characters becomes rather simple. Thankfully, there is not much complexity to these characters. Peter and Evangeline come from two of Mr. Martin's previous novels, Back Bay (1980) and Harvard Yard (2003). Perhaps in those other novels these characters are built up better and given depth; but for a reader coming to Mr. Martin's fiction for the first time with this book, they lack substance. There are two interesting characters of whom we would have enjoyed seeing more. The first is Will Pike, who is thrown into the midst of history and makes many mistakes in the process of maturing. In a recent interview about his book, Mr. Martin said, "What I do in all of my novels is take fictional characters, put them on the ground in the midst of these big historical moments, and let you see through their eyes how history unfolds." He does this well with Will Pike, and as we experience history with him, we identify with him. He is the one character who grows and changes, which is the essence of the fictive journey. Unfortunately, his leading role is over after Chapter Eleven. The other character of interest is Jennifer Segal, a graduate student assistant in the present day. Though she is honest and trusting, or perhaps because she is so, she becomes involved in the search for the lost constitution in a variety of unsavory ways through her association with several of the characters. Late in the book another character comments,

"But most people just want to do the right thing and live their lives and be left alone."
While everyone else seems to have an agenda, including the lead characters, Jennifer Segal fits the description of one who wants to do right, live her life, and be left alone. Her strength and purity make her a character of interest.

The historical periods each correspond roughly to a particular Constitutional crisis: the first concerns the drafting and ratifying of the Constitution; the second concerns secessionism; the third concerns prohibition and women's rights; the fourth concerns presidential impeachments. While the later generations of characters tend merely to provide commentary on each crisis, only during the first generation do we gain historical perspective on present-day issues. We actually see history as it is being made by, and through the eyes of, one character. The present-day chapters are thrilling as we follow the hunt for the document, like a detective. The intervening chapters that drag the reader from the revolutionary period up to the present day, like a family saga, are, apart from a few interesting parts, just filler for us. In his biography, Mr. Martin says he has written a big story on a broad canvas. We think he would have produced a stronger book by condensing the characters, and giving a larger role to Will Pike and Jennifer Segal; by focusing the Constitutional debates on the Second Amendment only; and by removing any events that do not have direct impact on the whereabouts of the draft, like the assorted business adventures of Will Pike's grandson.

There are a few points which, when considered logically, seem to undermine, if not the basic premise of the novel, the prime motivation for many of the characters. The crusader for the repeal of the Second Amendment, Congresswoman Harriet Holden, is eager to find the annotated draft because she believes it will provide evidence that the Founding Fathers did not intend the right to keep and bear arms to be construed as it is today. She would propose that the country return to the original meaning of the Constitution. The problem with her argument is that the Founding Fathers never intended women to have the right to vote or hold office. The blurb on the back of the book says:

The draft's marginal notes spell out, in shocking detail, the Founders' unequivocal intentions--the unmistakable meaning of the Bill of Rights.
There are unequivocal intentions, but no shocking details. Just past the midpoint of the novel, a man in possession of the annotated draft studies it:

But as he read, he realized that it shed no new light. Nothing in it clarified the positions of Lincoln or the Secessionists. Nor did the scratchings left by any of the New Englanders.
This clear statement, affirmed again at the end, means the lost Constitution doesn't make any difference one way or another. But why should it? A first draft of the Constitution with notes in the margins written by the New England delegates to the Constitutional Convention shouldn't mean anything more than a first draft of Mr. Martin's novel. Only the final draft matters, and we already have the final draft of the Constitution--we already know what the Founding Fathers thought. So the hoopla over this draft as it might affect rights or laws seems contrived. Its loss would not strip the nation of its constitutional moorings. First drafts of anything can only suggest to us the path taken in reaching the final draft. Still, some of the characters believe so strongly that this draft can somehow change the law of the land that they create a forgery of the legendary annotated draft. An annotated first draft would be a valuable object only on the antiquarian market, which is how it is first lost, but not why anyone seeks it. Again, such a lack of change, either for better or worse, can rarely result in an engaging story.

As we enter the last 100 pages, characters from the beginning of the book start to reappear. The final chapters present the events that took place just before the beginning of the novel. There is no real new information, but we see how connections have been made and what led the current characters to their present positions. This is the part of the novel that holds the least interest, because we already know where we are and we want to reach the conclusion. The reader has already been informed the draft contains no new information, so all we are left to wonder is where it will be found. This reader had a hunch sixteen pages before the lead character did, and we both were right.

Mr. Martin is the winner of the 2005 New England Book Award, and if the physical landscape that his characters trod is not a character itself, it is certainly the author's greatest passion. An example of the passages descriptive of the New England countryside:

By noon the next day, Will Pike was watching a hawk ride the updrafts west of Lake Sebago, and he imagined that he could see what the hawk could see--hundreds of lakes and ponds reflecting the sunlight, so many that it seemed the land was afloat on a sea of fresh water; the rivers and streams, bringing the water and carrying it away; and the endless green forests rolling back from the coast like a blanket pulled up and over those sleeping mountains.
Every chapter, if not every scene, contains passages such as this. There is a calm leisure to these descriptions, but once the scene is set, dialogue takes command. The reader encounters few interior monologues, and little internal conflict, giving the book a pace, and a lack of depth, similar to that found in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In two notable places, Mr. Martin uses quick-cut scenes little more than a paragraph long, a style widely employed in the visual media but not always suited to the more contemplative written medium.

For us, the most memorable part of the book was a bit of multi-layered humor: some golfers are discussing Congresswoman Harriet Holden. One comments that all she wants to do is take away their guns. The other agrees, and notes that next she'll want to take away their golf clubs. A third says, "Somebody should tell that Harriet Holden that golf clubs don't kill people, golf courses do."

James Madison said that every word of the Constitution decides a question between liberty and power. There are great stories to be written about these questions, and the solutions the Founding Fathers offered. As Mr. Martin noted, what was done during the Revolutionary period of American history was literally revolutionary. What we read, though, is simply a witness to that history and a meaningless search. Just as characters in a good novel must change, a good novel must also change its readers, must make them think, and wonder, and reevaluate the world around them. Our reading of The Lost Constitution just left us with a desire to easily and legally purchase a dozen firearms.

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