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20 july 2008
Nick Taylor's Disagreement is a refreshing and old-fashioned Civil War novel. I stress that it's old-fashionedness is a postmodern oldfashionedness. Taylor, a 32-year-old MFA, can't be confused with Margaret Mitchell or MacKinlay Kantor. The Disagreement is neither prudish in theme nor archaic in moral tone, and though set in the South, it is no Confederate apologia. But Taylor avoids shock effects and anachronistic language in an attempt to give us a historical novel as true to the language of its setting as to the verisimilar details it uses.
Language is always a problem for the historical novel. For the Civil War novel, which must exist in verbal territory heavily overwritten by participants in the war and by historically-minded authors ever since, the problem is particularly acute. An author can attempt to contrast his or her narrative voice to the language of the characters, thereby establishing distance (Mitchell's approach, and that of Edward P. Jones in The Known World, hardly in the Mitchell tradition politically but akin in aesthetic terms). S/he can lean heavily on internal narrative that attempts to produce a "real" language of the characters that is one they would never have put to paper (Kantor's method, elaborated by later writers like Don Bannister). A writer can recuperate a regional dialect that stayed out of print in the 19th century (Charles Frazier's solution). Or one can attempt to produce a postmodern stew of anachronism and bizarrerie, as in Charles Johnson's historical novels, or in The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright.
Taylor takes yet another route, producing in The Disagreement the kind of text that an actual 19th-century narrator might have set to paper using the literary conventions of his own era. Little in The Disagreement could not actually have appeared in print in 1895. (when narrator John Muro sits down to tell his Civil War experiences) One oblique reference to masturbation, perhaps, would have been blue-pencilled, but euphemistic descriptions of "the marriage act" might well have fit in with the progressive hygienic tone of the 1890s.
The device of a narrator who looks back on the War is common enough (cf. Josephine Humphreys's Nowhere Else on Earth or Kaye Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon). Situating a narrator well post-war allows some prolepsis (anticipation of future events), without which the present-moment narrative can seem precious or corny (seriously, how can a 21st-century novelist sustain suspense over the outcome of Gettysburg, or Lincoln's trip to Ford's Theater?) But the trick is to avoid big-picture prolepsis as well. A narrator who knows the facts of the war before he or she sets out, but remains artificially unaware of the historical struggles over interpretation of the war that have been fought in the ensuing century-and-a-half, is a powerful literary device.
Nick Taylor succeeds very well here, giving us a young man's tale but a middle-aged perspective on the War, and avoiding the temptation to make that narrator sound like someone who has a 21st-century historian's sense of historiography. For the most part, Taylor's characters are fairly limited white, upper-middle class Confederates: unrepentant slave-holders who nonetheless show some basic humanity. One minor character, a factory foreman who has lost a leg at First Manassas and turns improbable abolitionist, seems to sacrifice realism for 21st-century sensibility. But the major characters would feel at home in a real 1860s Virginia, we feel. And because they are neither hopelessly evil nor Godlike in their retroactive moral superiority, we sense that we are being exposed to the inevitable moral challenges of the War with something of the same equipment that actual Confederates might have deployed.
Plot? John Muro, a young medical student in Charlottesville, comes of age as a Civil War hospital physician in the years 1861-65. Most of his challenges are romantic, as he tries to deal with the bracingly forward and often enigmatic Lorrie Wigfall. We know early on that Lorrie and John will be married, and are still married in 1895; the problem is how to reach an accommodation that allows for this life partnership.
And that's old-fashioned too, but as I said at the start of this review, refreshingly so. John Muro doesn't solve the problems of the universe (and unlike doctor Emory Trimble in Rosemary Wells's recent Red Moon at Sharpsburg, he doesn't even discover penicillin or develop antisepsis). But he and Lorrie learn how to live with each other, which, given all they have to cope with, is quite enough for two lifetimes.
Taylor, Nick. The Disagreement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.