Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Book Review: My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield (Hachette Book Group, 2008)
(First published in September's Hindu Literary Review)
There is one redeeming truth that glimmers at the back of this book: every good artist owes more to life than to letters. The absence of academic laurels can therefore be no impediment to a suitably sensitive youth, looking to be (the next) Shakespeare, provided always that he lives deeply. But just what constitutes living deeply? Jess Winfield's My Name is Will has no good answers. It calls itself a novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare, and that is a fairly exact description. Unfortunately, the implication through the course of the book seems to be that the first two commodities, partaken of in generous quantities, will more or less yield the third. This somewhat thin understanding of creative genius shows also in the novel's stylistic make-up, so much so that it is better treated as a high-spirited academic tract, than a work of fiction.
Employing what has become a fairly common story-telling device, My Name is Will proceeds along two parallel narratives. In 1980s California, we follow young Willie Shakespeare Greenberg as he struggles with his Master's thesis on his illustrious namesake. Willie wants to show that the persecution of Catholics in late sixteenth century England was the fire in which Shakespeare's talents were forged. But what he really wants is to sleep with plenty of girls and get high on plenty of mushrooms. His troubles begin when his father, who is wise to his son's predilections, cuts his flow of cash, thus forcing Willie to embark on a dangerous expedition to Berkeley to sell a giant psychedelic mushroom to a drug dealer. Dangerous because Nancy Reagan's war on drugs is underway, and there are informers and enforcers on the prowl. There are also, of course, various high-minded young men and women, vociferously saying Yes to Drugs. So where does Willie figure in the fight? Ostensibly on the side of the latter group, but not really- all that he really wants is to sell his 'stuff' and make a quick buck. The principle of the thing is not so important to him. And somewhat similar is his attitude to Shakespeare. We know that Willie is obsessed by the Bard; he has what looks like the entire Collected Works memorized; but the strongest impression he gives is of a young man in thrall to a name, Shakespeare, and an idea, The Great Artist, but neither particularly capable, nor particularly interested, in comprehending either. Now, in all this, he is a perfectly convincing character; he represents a very real type of affable, feckless young man. But Jess Winfield wants us to believe that he is a modern Shakespeare in the making, and that is a stretch.
Unless you buy his idea of the original. The second, alternating story of the book is of the young William Shakespeare in Stratford on Avon in 1582, flitting from maiden to maiden, and not doing much writing. His own 'war on drugs' is the Queen's war on Catholicism, and his own dangerous expedition is to deliver a relic from the Church to his old schoolmaster, now in hiding from Protestant pursuers. He, too, does not ultimately care for this fight; religious faith, one way or the other, doesn't much interest him. So what does interest him? People, presumably, their lives, their loves, their emotions, their crises? We would expect him to spend long hours scanning his thoughts for what gems he could make of them. But Winfield will have none of that. In a few pages of jejune fictional fancy he attributes Shakespeare's uniquely powerful insight to a particularly strong encounter with narcotics. Meanwhile, back in 1986, a similar 'mind-blowing' overdose gives Willie Greenberg the scoop on his hero and ensures the safe passage of his thesis. Thus the two Shakespeares, old and new, are each set on their way. In Winfield's imagination, it really is that simple.
Save, then, for the one true idea that artists draw from life and not books, My Name is Will is superficial in the extreme. And yet this is not because it is jaded or too tired to try. On the contrary, it is nothing if not enthusiastic. The writing is full of puns and word-play; the author is clearly besotted with his subject. But his enthusiasm is misdirected. The energy Winfield expends on his fictional characters and situations might have been better harnessed had he written an out and out academic treatise. This is no joke; even as it is, My Name is Will frequently reads like a highly imaginative research paper. When telling the story of the modern day Willie, Winfield pauses every now and then to take a potshot at 'New Literary Criticism'- an academic doctrine which holds, apparently, that the personal experiences of an author are irrelevant to appraising his writings. And every chapter about the 'original' William Shakespeare is prefaced by a brief factual note about his life and times- these are interesting, and serve as relevant points of departure for the story to come. The whole of My Name is Will could therefore be treated as an ebullient attack on New Literary Criticism, buttressed with examples, and on that footing it might well succeed. But not as a novel.